Agnes Varda: The French director still making critically acclaimed movies at 90
As the celebrated ‘Faces Places’ comes to the UAE, the filmmaker is finally getting the recognition she deserves
If you are looking for a textbook example of a female director who has been overlooked in the first century of cinema, Agnes Varda might just be it.
In fact, it has arguably taken the French director turning 90 for her to be viewed on the same plane as her more renowned, male peers, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.
It is a big week for the nonagenarian. Varda’s 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary, Faces Places, which she made with the French photographer and artist JR, opens at Cinema Akil on Friday February 15, while her new documentary, Varda By Agnes, about her own career, is having its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, which runs until Sunday.
In Faces Places, Varda and her sidekick JR, 35, are an odd couple travelling across France and visiting small villages in a specially adapted van that doubles as a mobile photo booth.
JR found fame taking pictures of regular citizens, before blowing them up to billboard size and posting them on the side of buildings in their towns. Consequently, it is the butcher, baker or teacher who is exalted to the level of a movie star.
Yet this film is so much more than a glorified art project; Varda adds a historical perspective to the work of JR. “I wanted to take him out of the city, he has always been such an urban artist,” she said at the time. As such, the documentary is about memories. Varda reminisces about her career as a photographer, filmmaker and artist who started out just after the Second World War, when she found a job taking pictures of children sitting with Santa Claus in a department store. From such ordinary roots, extraordinary lives developed.
Varda recalls some of the people she met along the way and the places she visited. But Faces Places is just as much about how France has changed and adapted over the past 50 years, as the world has moved from industrial to digital technologies.
The film is an instant classic. Amy Taubin of Film Comment magazine was not speaking in hyperbole when she called the movie, “an unassuming masterpiece”, while The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it “a beguiling and unique piece of work”. There is an almost magical connection between JR and Varda and it is apparent when I meet them both at the Cannes Film Festival last year. They almost act like children in a classroom. “Look at his feet, they’re so big,” says the petite Varda, who looks like a figurine next to the tall and lanky JR, who wears his trademark dark hat and sunglasses.
A perennial style icon
Varda is also unmistakable with her bowl haircut, which is always dyed in some tremendous colour. When we meet it is two-tone: white on top with an auburn ring at the bottom.
At the 2018 Oscars, the year she made history as the oldest nominee in the event’s history, Vogue waxed lyrical about her immaculate style on the red carpet, saying that she may have been “the biggest (and coolest) red carpet heroine of the night”.
The pair met when JR went to see Varda on Rue Daguerre in Paris, where she lives and works. He photographed the facade of the building and took pictures of Varda with her cat.
She took portraits of him in return. They met the next day, too, and then again the day after that, discussing the ideas of working together, talking about a short film and then a documentary. “It seemed clear that JR’s habit of pasting big pictures of people on walls, empowering them through size, and my habit of listening to them, would lead to something,” Varda says.
There is such a synchronicity between them. They are both street artists of the avant-garde and they have similar ideas about what is exciting. “JR would take me to a place and would say, ‘come and see.’ And I’d say, ‘I know this place because I was there in 1954. I took a picture here.’”
A celebrated feminist film history
Indeed it was in that very year that Varda made her self-financed debut film, La Pointe Courte, a project that cost $14,000 (Dh51,400). It is about an unhappy couple working through their relationship in a small fishing town and, in retrospect, has been treated as a precursor to the French New Wave – a movement regarded as the birth of modern cinema. However, it went almost unnoticed at the time. “I just had the feeling to write dialogue with a couple,” Varda says. “I had no formal training, no knowledge of films, it was how I imagined making cinema. It was very spontaneous.”
It was also a feminist film at a time, before Germaine Greer and Kate Millett helped to define the term, and before it became part of everyday culture. “I wanted to contrast the public and the private,” Varda says. “It was very radical. I showed it to some friends and, finally, two years after I made it, it came out in a small cinema.”
Seven years later she made the seminal Cleo from 5 to 7, one of the best films made in the 1960s. The story is told almost in real time and shows a pop singer waiting for the results of a biopsy. It is a film about coming to terms with mortality, but it is also about the iconography of women, and overcoming objectification. “The style of the film is the writing of cinema and it’s not the dialogue,” Varda says. “That’s why I invented the word ‘cine-literature’.”
In 1962, Varda married Jacques Demy. She made a movie about their life together, Jacquot de Nantes, which came out in 1991, just after the death of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg director Demy. Although Varda carried on making films in the years before the release of Jacquot de Nantes, it was only 1985’s Vagabond – about a young woman who wanders through French wine country – that she got the praise she deserved. “It was the only one of my films that was a big success,” she says.
The reappraisal of her career began in earnest after she made The Beaches of Agnes in 2008, an autobiographical movie that was made to celebrate her 80th birthday. In it, Varda picks apart her past, choosing beaches as a backdrop to the story.
“Beaches give me ideas,” she says. “The beach is the most beautiful place in the world. It’s a place of contemplation.” Many people thought it would be her last film – she received lifetime achievement awards from the Cannes Film Festival, among others, but she returned, arguably better than ever, with Faces Places.
Varda was suddenly then invited to give talks to help inspire the next generation of filmmakers, travelling around the world. But she began to tire of touring the globe and decided to make Varda by Agnes – a film that she made to do the talking for her. It can travel around the world to tell the director’s story so she doesn’t have to. And who better to have made that movie than her, one of the greatest filmmakers of our time.
Faces Places is showing for a week at Cinema Akil from Friday February 15
Updated: February 13, 2019 09:54 AM