“I had a world. I don’t think I had a career. I made films,” said director Agnès Varda of her life’s work.
This week, Cannes Film Festival will give Varda an honorary Palme d’Or for her lifetime of work. Varda is 86.
Varda was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1928 to a Greek father and French mother. Christened as Arlette, she changed her name to Agnès when she was 18. She studied at the Ecole de Louvre and became a still photographer at the Theatre Nationale Populaire in Paris. In 1954, she made her first film La Pointe Courte. The film received notice for several reasons, one being it was a made by a woman in her mid-20s with film training. It also played with chronological effects in a way that would later earn her the “grandmother of the nouvelle vague” moniker.
“I was a photographer first. I went alone to China—not alone, I was in a group, but I worked alone. I did it my way as much as I could. I have been sort of courageous about doing things, because I didn’t think I should do less than my brothers,” she said in an interview with Believer Magazine.
Varda says that when she started, there were only three other women in France making films. “I thought, I have to use cinema as a language. At that time, when I started, in the ’50s, cinema was very classical in its aims, and I thought, I have to do something which relates with my time, and in my time, we make things differently.”
She certainly did. By 1962, when she made Cleo from 5 to 7, she and French directors Alain Resnais and Chris Marker had become what critic Richard Roud termed the Left Bank wing of the New Wave.
The French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) was birthed from a group of critics and filmmakers who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema. This includes Francois Truffaut, who then formulated the now famous “auteur theory.” Richard Roud first described Resnais, Varda, and her husband Jacques Demy as “Left Bank.” Roud described a distinctive “fondness for a kind of Bohemian life and an impatience with the conformity of the Right Bank, a high degree of involvement in literature and the plastic arts, and a consequent interest in experimental filmmaking”, as well as an identification with the political left.
Varda confesses that when she was given the moniker of “grandmother of the New Wave,” she knew more about art, literature, and theater than she did about film. Marker and Resnais were impressive, if not intimidating to her. “They’re very bright and they were already. They were slightly older than me, but it’s very important when you’re twenty-five. People are four years older and they know much more than you, and they’re both very bright, and Renais told me a lot of things, about film, about life. So then I learned and I went to see movies. Sometimes I say, If I had seen some masterpieces, maybe I wouldn’t have dared start. I started very—not innocent, but naïve in a way. So that’s a big freedom, you know? I didn’t go to school. I didn’t go to film school. I was never an assistant or trainee on a film. I had not seen all those cameras. So I think it gave me a lot of freedom,” Varda said.
When Varda and Demy moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s, she filmed the Black Panthers and made documentaries about the counter-culture and the political movements in America. “I have been sometimes in the right place at the right time in the 20th century,” she said. Varda also campaigned for the acceptance of birth control and abortion in France in the 60s. “I’m still a feminist, still fighting for that. Even in France where it’s allowed, in a hospital there is a boss doctor for each floor, and if their convictions push them to say no, they can say, I don’t want abortion in my service. Even though it is legal, still they have the right to refuse. Can you believe this? And the young girls don’t even know that some people fought for them to have the pill. Society is so slow.”
Varda has produced a prolific body of work. She has made both narrative and documentaries. Her scripted films include Cleo from 5 to 7; Le Bonheur; One Sings, the Other Doesn’t; and Vagabond. Daguerreotypes is a documentary set on the Rue Daguerre in Paris, the street where Varda lives and keeps an editing suite. It is a precise picture of a section of a street in 1970s Paris, the type of film that could be put in a time capsule because it so perfectly captures a little piece of humanity.
In the film, Varda is particularly focused on the shopkeepers along Rue Daguerre. As the film unfolds, we observe day to day life for these shopkeepers and the neighborhood, but also learn more about the shopkeepers, such as when they moved to Paris, how they came to their line of work, and how they ended up with their significant other.
“I started to make films. To share ideas–not ideas–emotions, a way of looking at people, a way of looking at life. If it can be shared, it means there is a common denominator. I think, in emotion, we have that. So even though I’m different or my experiences are different, they cross some middle knot,” Varda said.
In Daguerreotypes, she captures this common denominator of emotion perfectly. Even if we do not have any desire to be a shopkeeper or if we’ve never been to Paris, these people are sharing pieces of their lives, how they grew up, what they learned, how they fell in love, and despite the stories and ideas being specific to one person, the emotions are universal.
Sources: Believer Magazine