My mother spotted her first. A tiny old woman dressed head to toe in purple and sporting a matching bowl cut. Her hair was dyed burgundy except at the crown, which was grown out, white and luminous, as though she wore a cap of snow.
‘Now that’s a haircut,’ Mum said.
The woman’s kaftan dress brushed her ankles; instead of walking, she seemed to float across the Venice Biennale ticket office. I froze, grabbing my mother’s arm.
‘Holy shit, that’s Agnès Varda!’
I had spent the last year obsessing about this woman, driving my friends bonkers. I’d hunted down all her films and read whatever I could find. I’d had strange dreams about her. Written her a postcard. Found myself standing outside her Paris home, peeking in the windows, and started worrying that perhaps I was taking things too far. I’d never felt this way about a filmmaker before. Never experienced my heart go oof to a film and then, a beat later, believed I’d found in the director a private god. And there she was, smiling warmly as a young Spaniard asked her to sign his Biennale map before waving it in his boyfriend’s face like a winning lottery ticket.
Agnès Varda. She was so close. I could easily have walked over and reached out, thanked her for being fearless and inspiring and making films which have touched my life. But I hung back.
‘I didn’t realise she was so old,’ my mother whispered. ‘Eighty-seven,’ I said. She was with her daughter Rosalie, whom I recognised, having watched her grow up across many of Varda’s films. They collected their tickets from a VIP counter and left.
Her name is pronounced Agnès, and she kept her family name, Varda, after she married the French filmmaker Jacques Demy. She was born in Brussels in 1928 and her family fled during World War II for the Mediterranean port of Sète where they lived on an anchored boat, and then later, Paris, where Varda studied art history at the École du Louvre, took classes at the Sorbonne, and successfully trained and practiced as a photographer before moving into film.
I could easily have walked over and reached out, thanked her for being fearless and inspiring and making films which have touched my life. But I hung back.
Fiercely independent, Varda has retained authorial control across her career: scriptwriting, directing and producing almost all of her forty-four low-budget films through her company Ciné-Tamaris. For this reason her oeuvre is eclectic, sprawling, and awash with experiments. Jean-Luc Godard once summarised, ‘the history of cinema is boys photographing girls’, but in Varda’s films the image is firmly hers and richly drawn female characters gifted with backstories, contradictions and agency feature, such as in Cléo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, Jane B. for Agnès V., Diary of a Pregnant Woman, Documenteur and Kung-Fu Master!.
After being somewhat under-appreciated by film history until the turn of the millennium, Varda seemed to be suddenly everywhere in 2015. I stumbled across echoes of her in the most unexpected places, from my namesake in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity who cites Varda and Bresson as her favourite filmmakers, the Farmer John pig mural from Mur Murs that backdrops the abattoir scene in Brian de Palma’s Carrie, to the real flesh and blood Varda in Venice.
Last year I cheered as she became one of only four directors to win an honourary Palme d’Or, a prestigious award in art-house cinema, atoning for the Cannes International Film Festival’s past disregard. This prize followed a stream of international retrospectives, restorations, DVD releases, lifetime achievement awards, articles and book-length studies published: a belated reappraisal of Varda’s work that recast her as one of the most important filmmakers of the last fifty years, and led many, myself included, to not only discover her cinema but to fall head over heels for her.
An hour later, I sighted Agnès again as Rosalie pushed her around the Arsenale exhibition in a wheelchair. These days, she wears only varying shades of purple in the tradition of eccentrics like John Waters with his drawn-on pencil moustache, or Erik Satie and his wardrobe of identical brown corduroy suits. Like the bowl cut she’s kept since nineteen, I used to believe this was some Warholian myth-making ploy, but now I suspect it’s just a consequence of getting older: you work out what you like and enjoy it.
Agnès and Rosalie gazed through a room of black- and-white portrait photos taken on the Métro by the late filmmaker Chris Marker. I tried to focus on Marker’s photos, but in my head ran footage of Varda wandering this Biennale exhibition space in 2003 in a full-body potato costume. To encourage bemused festivalgoers to visit her video installation Patatutopia, she waddled amongst the crowds, reciting the names of potato species, like the art-world version of a street- corner human pizza slice.
I didn’t want to be blatantly shadowing Varda so I posed before Marker’s photos: brow furrowed, lips pursed. I wondered if Varda, three metres to my left, was as distracted as I was; if she was thinking more about the photos or their creator, who’d been a dear friend of hers. Marker cameos in her cine-memoir The Beaches of Agnès as a giant orange cartoon cat named Guillaume en Egypte. His voice is dubbed and distorted as he interviews her: ‘Tell us instead about the birth of the French New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette. And you, La Varda?’
Varda was the only woman involved in that fabled cinema movement, though she remained something of a misfit. While the Right Bank boys club of Godard and company grew up in the Cinematheque, Varda’s influences came from paintings and Modernist literature. She fell in with Left Bank artists like Marker, Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute.
Aged twenty-five, she had seen only a handful of films before deciding to make her own, penning an ambitious script with a dual structure inspired by Faulkner’s The Wild Palms and shooting guided only by her instincts as a photographer. She boldly wrote to Resnais: Monsieur Resnais, I heard you are a good editor and you have feelings for the Left. Would you like to see my film? He agreed to edit La Pointe Courte, accepting lunches as payment.
While the Right Bank boys club of Godard and company grew up in the Cinematheque, Varda’s influences came from paintings and Modernist literature.
In the neo-realist episodes of La Pointe Courte, rough fishermen’s hands slap children, infants die of preventable illnesses, and the (real) villagers’ speech is coarse, jovial. These scenes are interwoven with a second distinct story that follows a bourgeois Parisian couple whose marriage is on the rocks: the hyper-stylised frames are composed like Braque’s cubist paintings, and the theatre stars were instructed to deliver lines as though reading them.
La Pointe Courte premiered at Cannes in 1955 to an audience of forty, but it didn’t receive a traditional theatrical release. It is increasingly cited as the first film of the French New Wave.
Varda hasn’t stopped working since, and today she carries the residual auras of involvement in numerous mythic artistic and intellectual scenes. She embodies the glamour of the French New Wave, the cult genius of auteur theory, the power of the women’s movement, and the hippy openness of the late 1960s LA art scene. She was one of the 343 who signed Simone de Beauvoir’s manifesto for reproductive rights, and one of five at Jim Morrison’s funeral. ‘My grandson says I’m punk,’ she told Sheila Heti in an interview for The Believer.
Varda seems to be conscious of the mythologising that takes place around her. Though she was branded ‘grandmother of the French New Wave’ by the French press in her thirties, she performs this kind-hearted, down-to-earth persona in The Beaches of Agnès in her eighties. She gazes to camera, smiling as she walks backwards, taking us into her memories: ‘I’m playing the part of a little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative, who is telling the story of her life.’
Her life is framed through her identity as an artist. The film’s poster features a caricature Varda on a director’s chair, rotund, nose extended, oversized spectacles propped on her brow. Roger Ebert’s review of the film opens, ‘Dear Agnes Varda. She is a great director and a beautiful, lovable and wise woman, through and through.’ It is her authorship, highly visible, which kindles semi-religious devotion.
‘Why did you go from photography to cinema?’ asks Marker the giant orange cat in The Beaches of Agnès.
‘I wanted words,’ she replies.
Varda’s cinema sparks with language. Like Marker, she is a master of the film essay. Coming together in the editing room, her ideas make surprising, striking leaps through a method she dubbed cinécriture (cine-writing), wielding the camera like a pen. (She told one interviewer that La Pointe Courte was ‘a film to be read’.)
Rather than dry, demanding texts, though, the films are driven by her playful spirit. Varda is always dropping puns – for example, the title of Mur Murs, a 1980 documentary that tells the stories of the murals of LA, translates as both ‘walls, walls’ and ‘murmurs’, and alludes to a Victor Hugo poem.
Instead of a fly-on-the-wall approach, Varda is everywhere: her disembodied voice introduces the film, ‘What should I call them, these residents of the LA walls? Los Angelinos? Losangelics? Or los angels in aspic? Los ugly losers? The lousy jealous of Los Angeles?’ It feels like hanging out with your precocious poet best friend for eighty minutes.
Her voice invites new ways of looking, and looking again, and she exploits chance like a trained surrealist. In her 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I, Varda tells us that she forgot to turn off her hand-held camera after an interview and accidentally continued filming, spawning a scene she names ‘The dance of the lens-cap’. We see the ground of a vineyard covered in autumn leaves and her dangling lens cap swinging in and out of frame. She lets a full minute of the footage play out with an overlaid track of jazzy clarinet and drums, and the scene becomes bizarrely poignant.
Later in the film, she drives along the highway, passing fields of wheat and corn, and her zippy car overtakes a series of lonely trucks. She films the trucks while she grabs at them, encircling and capturing one after another between her fingers in a trompe l’oeil: ‘To retain things passing? No, just to play.’
Such is the iconography of her films: games, illusions, dreams, landscapes, outsiders, revolutionaries, the magic of art in the everyday.
Such is the iconography of her films: games, illusions, dreams, landscapes, outsiders, revolutionaries, visual art, homes and the homeless, the elderly, the magic of art in the everyday.
Despite this heightened subjectivity, Varda’s films are deeply curious about the world. In the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful boy falls in love with his own reflection in a pool; in the Varda version, she’d be equally entranced, but by the framing of the light across the water, the way it reminds her of a favourite poem or painting, and the people (friends, children, lovers) captured in the image. Her films turn inward, but not at the expense of the civic sphere – she manages this balance as an artist, a title that Varda proudly claims.
On days when my own creative pursuits seem self- indulgent, I often remember her line from The Beaches of Agnès, as she sits surrounded by her photographs of great theatre actors no longer alive: ‘I cry for them from my heart. I expose them as an artist proud of what she can do.’
Varda has said that hers is not a career but a life, and being an artist is a life-long political act. She missed the social uprisings in Paris of May 1968, but her spirit is manifest in is in the street!’ Her films remain committed to her Left-wing politics, which are rooted in a deep interest in the marginalised and suffering. Words like ‘empathy’ and ‘grace’ pepper discussions of Varda.
Her social concern is apparent in her portrayal of the poor villagers in La Pointe Courte, the victims of gang violence in Mur Murs, and the single mothers in Documenteur and Kung- Fu Master!. It culminates in the drifters of The Gleaners and I, whom she scouts France to meet, tracing the contemporary forms of the ancient tradition while collecting heart-shaped potatoes in a disarming, radical consideration of food waste and poverty.
My favourite Varda protagonist, another drifter, is social dropout Mona from Vagabond, one of Varda’s most celebrated films and the work that alerted feminist critics to re-evaluate her films, particularly Cléo from 5 to 7. Released in 1985, Vagabond follows Mona as a bratty young woman tramping across the French countryside. Varda once summarised the plot in a single sentence as ‘Dirty, grumpy girl goes for a long, furious walk and dies in a ditch.’
The film opens on Mona’s frozen, filthy corpse, before jumping back three weeks to a beach where Mona emerges naked from the sea (likened by some critics to Botticelli’s Venus) and being perved on by two men. This is how Mona always appears to us: through coded roles, the eyes of others or the camera, foreshadowed by death.
Across the movie, those she meets offer her a ride, food, shelter, employment or weed, and the film unfolds through a bricolage of pseudo-documentary interviews as they each remember her. That this narrative structure holds is astonishing in itself. The film condemns society’s indifference to those who don’t play by its rules. As Varda told Heti in 2009, ‘Je résiste. I’m still fighting. I don’t know how much longer, but I’m still fighting a struggle, which is to make cinema alive and not just make another film, you know?’
En route to Venice, I had a two-hour stop in Paris. My train pulled into Gare Montparnasse and I decided to stretch my legs. Storing my bags in a station locker, I walked the ten minutes towards rue Daguerre. The narrow market street in the 14th arrondissement may once have been dodgy but now boasts fromageries, boulangeries and wine bars. An old man in a beret was walking his fluffy white cat on a lead studded with diamantes. This was where Agnès Varda has worked and lived since 1951.
From outside, the Ciné-Tamaris boutique at number eighty-three is more souvenir shop than film production office. In the window there are DVDs of Varda’s and Demy’s films, postcards, posters, badges and mugs, and a sign that points out her home, which lies across the road at number eighty-eight.
The façade is magenta pink, with a door striped pastel purple, maroon and lime green. I recognised her narrow driveway, her mailbox. I pushed a postcard full of fangirl gush through the metal slot, immediately regretting it.
Walking up and down the rue Daguerre, I wondered how many other Varda fans had made this same pilgrimage over the decades, and if we were all looking for the same thing. Unsurprisingly, the ancient perfumery from her 1975 documentary about her street, Daguerréotypes (another pun), had vanished.
In the film, she asks the various shopkeepers where they come from, and what they dream of. I hoped to find the boulangerie, with the cheeky moustached baker who experienced insomnia, worrying his dough wouldn’t rise, but the space had been renovated and younger faces were serving. Only the accordion shop remained distinct, though its windows were boarded, its front crumbled and fading.
Baguette in hand, I walked from rue Daguerre to Montparnasse Cemetery, an ode to Paris’s bohemia and the resting place of artists and intellectuals such as Baudelaire, Sartre and Beauvoir, Beckett, Baudrillard, Cortázar, Duras, Serge Gainsbourg and Sontag.
After combing the lines of graves, I found Jacques Demy’s headstone in the middle of the Allée Raffet beneath the shade of a tree. Flowers and pinecones lay across the front of a stone engraved FAMILLE DEMY-VARDA, and LOVE was spelled out in plastic block letters. Perhaps she had left them.
I took a photo. I was glad I was on my own; that I didn’t need to explain to anyone why I wanted to visit the grave of a man I knew best through his wife’s cinematic tributes.
Varda made Jacquot de Nantes while Demy was dying of an AIDS-related illness in 1990. He began to feverishly write his memoirs – growing up in Nantes during World War II, addicted to cinema – and Varda adapted them, casting three boys to play Demy at different stages of boyhood. When he visited the set, Demy nodded, ‘Oh yes, it’s just right.’
The fiction film reimagines his youth and anticipates his death. Varda takes her hand-held camera and shoots intimate close-ups, savouring his physical presence: his silver hair, the lines across his face, his smile. Like all things Varda, art and life blur.
Demy passed away ten days after they finished shooting Jacquot de Nantes, aged fifty-nine. The scenes swam through my head as I stood at his grave. I remembered footage of her sitting there, laying roses, and I remembered reading that, at his funeral, Varda handed out cut-up reels of his masterpiece The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, encouraging guests to hold each frame up to the light and make them live again.
As I spied on her across the Biennale exhibition, my idol was lost in reverie before her late friend’s portraits. My mother paused and stood silently by my side, as though we were gazing from the side of a Venetian vaporetto across the lagoon.
‘Isn’t she great?’ I said.
Perhaps her revival says something about our times, a reaction against its compulsive self-scrutiny and flaky politics in favour of a committed examination of life, of how one should live, what one should cherish. Without ever preaching, she restores faith in the lofty ideals of artistic practice. That it fulfils an invaluable social role. That it is profoundly important. That without its expression, an artist like herself would die. She may be selling a dream, a fetishism of authentic DIY culture, but she gets away with it, and it feels good.
Or maybe she just makes damn fine films.
Someone I consider wise once told me that we fall in love many times during our life, but that when you find someone who inspires you to be the best person you can, that’s when you should hang on tight.
It sounds corny, but I’d like to think that, rather than pure narcissism or false ownership, Varda fandom is founded upon something like this. But, of course, I let her walk away. Out of earshot, Agnès and Rosalie spoke. I watched as they headed for the far exit, craning for any last visuals of my disappearing, bowl-cut myth.