Agnès Varda is more than a meme
Why the French director deserves serious analysis, no matter her current Instagram friendliness
Agnès Varda, the 89-year-old mother and grandmother of the French New Wave cinema, is on Instagram. In one of her recent photos, a brightly coloured suitcase frames a view of the glinting gold honorary Oscar she received this past fall – the first to be awarded to a female director.
Instagram has few octogenarians, but it makes sense for Varda to join the selfie culture. The director has long inserted her own sharply recognizable presence into her self-reflective, frequently essayistic films. With her small figure and mop of magenta hair, she has a distinctive public image; her idiosyncratic iconography is combined with a warm yet slyly unsentimental personality. Today, she's made herself freely available to fans – photos of adoring cinephiles posing with her are a staple in my Instagram feed – and her most recent film, Faces Places, a collaborative documentary made with French street artist JR, features the two directors' shared enthusiasm for selfies.
Today's age of personal branding has made it virtually mandatory for artists to self promote, and Varda's found a useful teacher in JR, an Instagram star with more than a million followers. Faces Places spends a bit too much time playing up the cutesy intergenerational dynamic, however, and it lessens the import of the murals the pair create in the film to commemorate the working-class people they meet across France.
In fact, it is not until the latter half of the film that Varda's contemplative voice emerges as she comments elegiacally on the nature and function of photography. One particular mural JR and Varda produce is washed away by the sea's high tide, and one can't help but think of the equally transient nature of photography in a digital world, where mindless scrolling has cheapened the practice of thoughtful consideration of an image.
Varda's filmography requires that same thoughtful consideration – more than a quick trip through her Instagram account – and a rediscovery of this pioneering filmmaker is vastly overdue.
Although her style undoubtedly influenced the Cahiers du Cinéma critics who would shape the French New Wave – including well-known directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut – Varda didn't fit into the Cahiers "boys club," and described feeling alienated by their intense nerd-out sessions over the hundreds of movies they'd seen (Varda studied art history). Film scholars more readily associate Varda with the Left Bank group, which includes French formalist Alain Resnais and the cinema essayist Chris Marker. More formally daring and political than the French New Wave, the Left Bank offered an alternative to the tragic romanticism and individuality ascribed to male protagonists found in the New Wave's early output.
Varda's work presents not only a unique perspective of the female experience, but a resounding wisdom. The emotional arcs of her characters – and Varda, when she's inserted herself – are spiritually affected by the mosaics of the spaces, places and fragments presented in each film. While her protagonists have distinguishable, concrete traits, they're also a little open to transformation by their changing circumstances, with each new experience teaching them who they really are.
It is essential, then, for film lovers to talk more about Varda's movies and less about her cute appearance – now more than ever, to prevent her grandmotherly visage from becoming a meme, lest she become the new Werner Herzog. The similarly outsider Herzog has had his daring, innovative work across decades become overshadowed by easy imitations of his foreignness (on Twitter, "Werner Herzog voice" prefaces jokes about the loneliness of cuddly animals; the account @WernerTwertzog, which emphasizes his Bavarian accent) and his own intimidating brand (he's mocked himself on television's Rick and Morty, voicing an alien who philosophizes on humanity's cultural obsession with penises).
Varda is lesser-known than Herzog and far more respected – but her quirkiness and the hunger of social media to churn and then spit out new gags could endanger the re-evaluation her filmography deserves, one that must account for the difficulties faced by a female European director. Gender biases have long prevented women from gaining access to production funds to advance their directing careers – an issue where we're only now starting to make considerable progress – and the art-house circuit is even more competitive and direly underpaid. Varda has only ever made enough money to live on, a reality she's confirmed numerous times in interviews.
Her recent honorary Oscar joins a lifetime of prestigious awards – yet her impact has never been documented to even half the degree of her male peers. The Toronto Public Library, for instance, has roughly 60 books on the subject of Godard, only 10 on Varda. While her peers get entire chapters in film-studies textbooks, Varda gets a sentence, a paragraph, maybe a page. It is time we rewrote the canon to champion her oeuvre, much like Cahiers du Cinéma's serious analysis of Alfred Hitchcock back in the 1950s, when nobody took the master of suspense seriously.
Feminist film magazine cleo – aptly named after Varda's masterpiece Cléo de 5 à 7 – is making a profound effort to get that canon conversation flowing; the editorial team has programmed a new retrospective of her work at Toronto's TIFF Lightbox replete with introductions by women in the film industry, running next month.
The first Varda go-to is Cléo de 5 à 7, about a shallow, nervous, Parisian chanteuse awaiting results to confirm if she has cancer. The black-and-white film is meticulously constructed to show a narrative as if in real time, with timestamps printed on screen to make the viewer astutely aware of the subtraction of hours and minutes before Cléo finds out her potentially fatal fate. The opening coloured sequence features tarot cards spread and read on a table, and the jolting switch from the vibrant card illustrations and earthy tablecloth to the intense, black-and-white facial expressions of the chanteuse and fortune-teller are formally dazzling and shocking in their binarism.
Vagabond (1985) is Varda's other true masterpiece, about a young woman tramp ambling from one transient space to another. The film reveals the hardened view of Mona, an outsider made more vulnerable due to her gender, yet the film doesn't let us victimize her. She broodingly examines objects in her path, the flotsam and jetsam of her adventure, with each adapted to any old purpose she needs, particularly shelter.
Varda's auteurist preoccupation with objects – often framed in closeups – can be also found in films such as The Gleaners and I (available on iTunes), a documentary on the French cultural practice of collecting food scraps from harvested fields. Her compassion for showing the lives of outsiders is also a key concern in her work.
In documentaries such as Gleaners and 1980's Mur Murs (also available on Criterion) – about Los Angeles's mural culture – Varda's fascination with visual arts and art history becomes an auteurist preoccupation. She deftly frames visual compositions – from murals to old, forgotten paintings – and recontextualizes them. Aspects of the paintings are recreated in her film, and it's sometimes hard to tell what's real and what's not – though, of course, none of it is; we are watching a film, after all.
Varda loves to make us aware of not simply her own authorial presence, but how we must always challenge an image presented to us. "In my films, I always wanted to make people see deeply," Varda once said – words of wisdom that defy our current, disposable image culture.
The enduring French filmmaker may now have Instagram, but Varda refuses to let selfies replace self-reflection – and that's something we can all learn from.
Radical Empathy: The Films of Agnès Varda runs March 22 through April 17 at the TIFF Lightbox (tiff.net).