Agnès Varda died just two months shy of 91 years old. Her long career changed the cinema. She made her first film in 1954, and she herself appeared this past February at the Berlin film festival with her last film, an autobiographical piece called Varda by Agnés. I knew her, and she changed how I saw and thought about the cinema.
That first film, called La Pointe Courte, told two stories simultaneously One is about a young couple having a hard time in their marriage They go to a town on the south coast of France where the man grew up, to try to work things out. The other story has to do with an actual situation – the health department wants to close the shellfish beds because of pollution, which creates a conflict with the fishermen. The short of it is that the combination of actuality and stylized fiction, mixing trained actors with local people playing themselves, and shooting in natural light on actual locations, made La Pointe Courte the first film of the French New Wave – over five years before the boys, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and others got into the act.
Varda told me that when she asked Alain Resnais, who in 1959 made Hiroshima Mon Amour, to edit the film, he refused. Varda, to say the least, was persuasive. She asked Resnais why not. He said he couldn’t work on it because she was doing what he was still figuring out in theory. But he edited the film.
I’ve always thought that Varda had one of the coldest eyes in the movies. She staged and filmed sights that made other filmmakers flinch. Her 1988 Kung-Fu Master is about a love affair between a 14-year old boy and the mother of his closest friend. The mother is played by Jane Birken, one of Varda’s closest friends, and the boy is played by Varda’s own son, Mathieu Demy. When I asked her how it was to film her young son in bed with her friend, Varda admitted that she would set up those shots and then leave because it was too hard for her to watch. But she made the film.
Le Bonheur, in English Happiness, from 1965, looks bright and cheery, with a pretty couple with two pretty children. Then the husband tells his wife that he’s now doubly happy – meaning he now has a new pretty girlfriend. It doesn’t end well. I said to Varda I thought it was a vicious film. She shrugged and said that people did such things. But after her husband, director Jacques Demy died in 1990, Varda’s work grew softer.
I knew Agnès Varda for 38 years. We met at the Denver Film Festival in 1981, started talking about Godard and struck up a friendship. She could be gentle and sweet, and she could be demanding, insistent and single-minded. But if she had not been so tough, she would never have made her films. For a woman filmmaker, France was worse than America, and one of Varda’s greatest contributions to the movies has been to open the way for women – especially for women making films about women. Look at Cleo from 5 to 7, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, Vagabond and her nonfiction films – The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès and from 2017 Faces/Places. And in person she could make every young woman she met believe they could become an artist.
I owe plenty to Agnès Varda. She was always there as a figure of unrelenting integrity. She taught me a ton about observing. One time she dropped me in a scruffy bar on her street in Paris and just told me to sit there for a while and watch. “These are the faces of France,” she said. She introduced me to her city – Paris. Not the monuments, but the neighborhoods, the small museums, the quiet flea markets. And she showed me constantly that art is crucial for the world.