Few people have ever embodied an art movement more than Agnès Varda did the French New Wave.
Her first film, “La Pointe Courte” (1954), is considered by many to be the birth of the genre and her last, “Faces Places” (2017), came half a century after its heyday, but Varda’s entire career represented its naturalistic, irreverent spirit.
With her death last Friday, a little bit of the fire of French cinema went out, but the art she left behind for us remains: a brilliant, beautiful filmography that has a lot to tell us about Varda herself and even more about the work of being human.
I was first introduced to Varda last year through “Faces Places,” which tracks the aging filmmaker, by that time in her late 80s (she died at 90), on a journey through the spaces and people of France at once in rapid flux yet just the same as she first explored it in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Along with experimental photographer JR, Varda finds her way along country roads and city streets, and the movie is just as much about their growing friendship as it is a showcase of the titular faces and places they’re getting to know. At the same time, it’s a meditation on the end of Varda’s life, just as her earlier “Jacquot de Nantes” (1991) was for her then recently passed husband, Jacques Demy.
It’s clear during “Faces Places” that it would be Varda’s last film.
What Varda brought to the New Wave, especially with “La Pointe Courte” and the legendary “Clèo from 5 to 7” (1961), was a distinctively personal, outsider touch following the Italian neorealists. In “La Pointe Courte,” ostensibly a narrative, Varda employs non-professional actors, telling a story that could easily be a real one. Varda’s later work, documentary on the surface, demonstrates the wit, narrative, and charm common to fiction. This liminality seems to me like the fundamental case of neorealism. The importance of Varda’s introduction of it to the New Wave cannot be overstated.
It is always a tragedy when a great artist and a great person, like Varda, dies, and one can always count on people they inspired and knew to talk about them.
In a tweet, Guillermo del Toro said that Varda “loved Cinema and was loved by Cinema in return.” JR said to her “you loved people, pasting and illusion.” Shortly before her death, Varda said, “I live in cinema. I feel I’ve lived here forever.”
Look at any photo of Varda in her prime, behind the camera or on set, and you can see just how true this statement was. Cinema, whether documentary or narrative, is the artist’s best attempt to illustrate a particular place and time, and the people inhabiting it. Every one of Varda’s pictures is a gorgeous accomplishment of this task.
Varda was a pioneer in so many ways. Her work created the French New Wave, she was one of the first great female filmmakers and one of the great filmmakers, period, and she was an eternally insightful, playful soul whose entire life existed in the pursuit of art.
If old movies aren’t your style, I encourage you to check out “Faces Places.” Critics often call one movie or another “required viewing,” but this one really is. If you like it — and I bet you will — please take a look at the rest of her work, too. Celebrate the Agnès Varda that was with her art; the Agnès Varda that continues to be.