“To meet new faces, and photograph them, so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory.”
This was what Agnès Varda described as her greatest desire in her 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary Faces Places, in which she journeys with the photographer JR through rural France and interacts with people who live, work and love in the countryside.
This celebration of life is evident through 60 years of radical films made by Varda, who sadly passed away last Friday from cancer. She was 90 years old.
From the lives of everyday people in a small fishing town in La Pointe Courte or the existential wandering of Cléo in Cléo from 5 to 7, to the story of a young woman on the road in Vagabond, Varda has always been telling stories about everyday people. Especially real women; fully-rounded female characters with different backgrounds and concerns.
In her last interview, conducted by The Guardian in September 2018, when asked what inspires her work, she gave a simple answer: “Reality.” But Varda elevated that reality, imbuing it with the magic that only cinema could. She took simple stories and allowed audiences all around the world to connect to her characters.
Her films were personal, joyful and life-affirming. Yet they were also experimental, radical and out of the norm. Cléo from 5 to 7 is told entirely in real time, yet features jump cuts. It is meant to take place in the real world, but changes from colour to black-and-white. Jacques de Nantes, about the youth of director Jacques Demy in Occupied France, is one of the most moving biographical pictures of the last century. Its recreations of Demy’s childhood are stark and impeccably detailed, but it is the film’s interludes featuring documentary footage of the dying Demy that really hits the emotion home. All the more bittersweet if you know that Jacques Demy was Agnès Varda’s husband.
It seems as though Varda’s work always operated on two levels; fiction and non-fiction, realistic and fantastic, personal and universal. She was a master of melding these styles and mediums together. Her work in the 1960s both as part of the Left Bank movement, and the French New Wave, made her renowned across the world. Her focus on women’s issues in an industry that still to this day is dominated by men is courageous and made her a fearless pioneer. Her love of cinema, especially experimental cinema, is infectious.
Her early work was fiction with documentary elements, and as she has grown, her films became docu-essays with a streak of narrative present. Her 1995 film One Hundred and One Nights of Simon Cinema is a fantasy film about the history of cinema. Her documentary The Gleaners and I focusses on the lives of gleaners, but any viewer may feel that the film is in fact about them, or even Varda herself. Her films are about the lives that we all live.
“I fought for a radical cinema, and I continued all my life,” Varda said, in the same interview mentioned earlier.
And how would she like to be remembered?
“I would like to be remembered as a filmmaker who enjoyed life, including pain…What happens in my days - working, meeting people, listening - convinces me that it’s worth being alive.”
Her last film, Varda by Agnès, premiered at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, and one can only hope it will have screenings in Sydney later this year.
Agnès Varda, the radical artist who changed cinema, will surely be missed.