Agnès Varda, the French New Wave pioneer who for decades beguiled, challenged and charmed moviegoers in films that inspired generations of filmmakers, has died. She was 90.
Ms. Varda’s production company, Ciné-Tamaris, said Ms. Varda died of cancer early Friday morning at her home in Paris.
The Belgian-born Ms. Varda was a spirited, diminutive figure who towered over more than a half century of moviemaking. Her first film, made at the age of 27, La Pointe Courte, earned her the nickname Grandmother of the New Wave, even though she – the sole woman among the movement – was a contemporary of its participants, including Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy, whom she later married.
A photographer-turned-filmmaker, Ms. Varda’s films fluctuated between fiction and documentary, often blurring the line in between.
Ms. Varda worked almost right up to her death, releasing the scrapbook documentary Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès) earlier this year. She had originally intended her 2008 cinematic memoirs, Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès), to be her swan song but, to her surprise, ended up with another decade of work. “I’m 90 and I don’t care,” she says into the camera in Varda par Agnès.
In 2015, Ms. Varda was given an honorary Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2017, she was given an honorary Academy Award. But she was more content, she said, “in the margins.” ”I’m flattered,“ she said of the Oscar, ”but not that much.“
Ms. Varda’s films quickly became feminist landmarks and she a champion of women behind the camera. One of the only female filmmakers in France when she started, she led an insurgency that continued, in greater number, through her life.
At the premiere of what she called her “feminist musical,” L’une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, The Other Doesn’t), in 1977, she introduced ”a film about women who were also people.“ Her Vagabond, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1985, followed a young female drifter (Sandrine Bonnaire) discovered dead in a freezing ditch.
“When I started, my point was not to be a woman,” Ms. Varda said. “I wanted to do radical cinema.”
Arlette Varda was born in Brussels on May 30, 1928, to a French mother and Greek father. Ms. Varda, who later changed her name to Agnès, started as a photographer after studying literature and arts. In 1951, she was appointed official photographer of the Théâtre National Populaire, and remained in that position for the next decade.
In 1954, well before Mr. Godard and François Truffaut became the emblematic figures of the New Wave, Ms. Varda’s first movie, La Pointe Courte, followed a couple going through a crisis in the small port of Sète on the Mediterranean coast. The movie was cut by Alain Resnais but was regarded as too radical at the time and only had a limited release. Ms. Varda contrasted the young couple’s story with the local villagers’ struggle to survive, eventually linking the two seemingly disparate ways of life.
She deliberately used a real fishing village, wanting to give the film the look of a documentary. “I’ve always been using reality as a texture to understand better,” she said. “I like for stories to look true.”
She made several documentary shorts, but inadequate funds prevented Ms. Varda from making her next feature, Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7) until 1961. The film studied Cléo’s evolution from a shallow pop star to an authentic human being capable of understanding pain in herself and others.
“I obliged myself to follow the time. Ninety minutes, one after another. Real time and real geography,” Ms. Varda said. “I filmed all the steps, all the streets. What she does, it could be retraced. I gave myself something difficult because inside the difficulty, I wanted to hear her heart beating.”
The widely hailed Cléo built anticipation for her next film, Le Bonheur (Happiness), which won the Silver Bear award at the 1965 Berlin Festival.
Ms. Varda married Mr. Demy, the Umbrellas of Cherbourg director, in 1962 and two were married until his death in 1990.
The filmmaking couple also spent several years in Hollywood in the late sixties. Mr. Demy made Model Shop there while Ms. Varda befriended Jim Morrison of the Doors, filmed the Los Angeles-set Lions Love and interviewed the imprisoned Black Panther leader Huey Newton for the 1968 documentary Black Panthers.
She and Mr. Demy had two children together: Mathieu Demy and Rosalie Varda, who both found careers in French filmmaking. Ms. Varda leaves both.