On March 29, 2019, the world of cinema lost one of its greats. Agnès Varda, known as the grande dame of the French New Wave, passed away in Paris at 90 years old. Her long career began in the 1950s and amounted to a rich filmography of both narrative and documentary films. At age 89, Varda was nominated for an Academy award for Faces Places, a feature documentary she created alongside the photographer JR exploring the villages and characters of the French countryside. Varda’s filmmaking, like many of those working within the French New Wave cinematic movement, sought to achieve a documentary realism that melded fiction and nonfiction. Remarkably, Varda’s distinctive, experimental style emerged before many of the most renowned figures of the French New Wave.
Varda’s presence as a woman in what was an entirely male enterprise both helped and hindered her craft. Her voice was tremendously influential, and her work a platform for the exploration of feminist concerns and social commentary. At the same time, being a woman in such a male–dominated realm made finding producers challenging, despite her renown. Although the world of filmmaking is slowly diversifying, it remains an egregiously male–dominated space. Varda’s impressive filmography and celebrated character will long be remembered. Although her pivotal role in women’s cinema should be acknowledged, Varda stands to be a staple in film history and the French New Wave alongside her male peers regardless.
Whether it’s the world of Hollywood films or the film festival circuit, the challenges that Varda faced in the middle of last century are far from alleviated. The statistics are infuriating, but hopefully, they are also motivating. The absence of female voices and surprisingly rigid adherence to the conventional notion of a man at the helm of great artistic undertakings is to the detriment of us all. For those of us who love film and want to see its industry change for the better, elevating the women who have pioneered filmmaking, including entire movements as Varda had, is part of our responsibility.
If you have never had the privilege of experiencing Agnès Varda’s incredible body of work, several of her greatest films are available on popular streaming platforms.
Faces Places (2017)—available on Netflix
Faces Places is lauded as a documentary that is simultaneously playful and powerful—a thoroughly charming masterpiece that paints an engaging portrait of rural France and its residents. For this undertaking, Varda teamed up with the photographer/muralist JR, whose large–scale murals of the villagers the duo met are incorporated into this innovative documentary that celebrates ordinary people.
Le Bonheur (1965)—available on Amazon Prime
With a title that means “happiness” Le Bonheur is a tale exploring the intersection of love, morality, and, of course, happiness. The central character, François, is a carpenter who lives an uncomplicated life with his wife and children, but meets a women named Émile with whom he begins an affair, despite remaining deeply in love with his wife. The film involves feminist themes that reflect the social unrest of 1960s France.
Vagabond (1985)—available on Amazon Prime
Beginning with the discovery of the frozen body of a young woman, Vagabond traces the life of a transient woman on the road and the people she meets along the way. This journey eventually results in her death. This film is a perfect example of the traditional narrative and documentary–like realism that characterizes much of Varda’s filmography.
In her passing, we can honor the legacy of this important figure of film history, explore and enjoy her 60–year career, and work towards promoting a more equitable industry. Varda’s inventive, experimental work has left its mark on the world of cinema, and may it inspire generations of aspiring female filmmakers to come.