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Film French New Wave director Agnès Varda had the last laugh

French artist Agnes Varda poses next to her installation named 'La serre du bonheur', presented as part of her exhibition at the Chaumont-sur-Loire castle on March 23, 2019.

GUILLAUME SOUVANT

There were many notable things about the filmmaker Agnès Varda in later life, not least of which was her two-toned hair. Ms. Varda had always maintained the gamine bowl-cut of her youth and began dyeing it various shades of brown and purple, but latterly only the bottom half, leaving a good swath of grey showing on top. The effect was not flattering – Ms. Varda was a small woman and running a horizontal band around her head accentuated her squatness – but the distinctive look made a strong statement. Here was an elder who remembered her youth but acknowledged her age, a woman in a glamorous industry cheekily refuting the invisibility of senescence, a maker of images demanding to be seen.

The confident humour behind the hairstyle seemed typical of Ms. Varda, who died Friday at the age of 90 – at least to judge from the documentary Visages Villages (Faces Places), her 2017 collaboration with the French street photographer JR. In the Oscar-nominated film, the old filmmaker and the young photographer travel through rural France photographing ordinary people, enlarging their images to a monumental scale and displaying them in public places. Whimsical and circuitous, the film gently builds an investigation of celebrity in the selfie age and if it is JR’s photographic practice that drives the plot, it is Ms. Varda’s gentle prodding of him and his subjects that drives the themes. Why, she wants to know, must JR always appear hidden behind dark glasses?

It is an annoying pretense that reminds her of her old friend, the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. In one of the film’s several bittersweet encounters with seniority and loss, Ms. Varda and JR go to visit Mr. Godard, but he stands them up. Ms. Varda, always relaxed, shrugs off his absence and it’s not clear how much of this non-encounter might have been scripted in advance, but the irony is poignant. Ms. Varda was the only female director in France’s New Wave; the great Mr. Godard’s fame certainly far surpassed hers in the heyday of their careers and here he is snubbing her from his isolated retirement. Unoffended and artistically engaged elsewhere, she has the last laugh: Her collaboration with the thirtysomething JR is vital and current, and when Visages Villages was nominated as best documentary, Ms. Varda became the oldest person ever recognized in the Oscar’s competitive categories.

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With the demise of the rep house and the video store, the public’s experience of New Wave cinema is now more honoured in the breach than the observance. Were it not for JR and the two-toned hair, Ms. Varda might remain a figure of distant fame, as elusive as Mr. Godard, the recluse. From 1954, when she made her debut with La Pointe Courte, about a couple’s troubled relationship, she emerged as a ceaselessly innovative filmmaker who mixed documentary and fiction, and experimented with cinematic time and camera techniques. She was a deeply compassionate artist, fully alive to the human drama beneath the surface of her carefully framed images, and always concerned with the realities of ordinary people.

In her 1962 breakthrough Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7), she followed, more or less in real time, a beautiful singer as she travels from a hat shop to a café to a rehearsal, anxiously awaiting the hour when she will get the results of a cancer biopsy. Cléo struggles with her own beautiful image – at one point she breaks a mirror and takes it as an omen of her death – and with men’s attitudes toward it. In the end, she meets a solider on leave from the front in France’s Algerian war, whose attitude to death brings her a certain courage, but the film’s witty title is a bitter reference to women’s role in French society. A 5 à 7 is French slang for a mistress, visited between those hours at the end of the working day.

If Cléo directly addressed woman’s self-objectification, L’une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, The Other Doesn’t) simply followed the biographical details of two ordinary women, teenage friends reunited against the backdrop of 1970s feminism. The 1977 film is notable for its frank reference to one woman getting an abortion in high school: In 1971, Ms. Varda was one of 343 French women who signed a manifesto revealing they’d had back-street abortions and calling for legalization. Then, in 1985, in Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond) Ms. Varda introduced the enigmatic Mona, a transient young woman on her travels through rural France, scrounging food and confronting violence. There the director mixed conventionally scripted fiction with passages where other characters are interviewed about their encounters with Mona: Some envy her freedom; one complains that she smells.

In this file photo taken on Jan. 17, 1986 French director Agnes Varda poses in Paris talks about her new film 'Sans toit ni loi' (Without roof nor law).

JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU/AFP/Getty Images

That dark film, paradoxically Ms. Varda’s greatest commercial success and a critical hit, pointed the way toward her later documentaries. In Les glaneurs and la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I), a 2000 documentary, Ms. Varda trailed both literal gleaners in fields of leftover potatoes or unpicked apples, and figurative ones, the garbage pickers and recycling artists who work the city streets. The magpie filmmaker was also a kind of gleaner, and that documentary’s ambulatory style and travelogue form, with hand-held camera work and unscripted encounters along the road, foreshadowed Visages Villages. Ms. Varda herself appeared in both these later films, as a director and as a subject, a sympathetic investigator of the human condition and a participant increasingly recognizing her own mortality.

Towards the end of Visages Villages, JR shoots pictures of Ms. Varda’s aging toes, enlarges them to the size of freight containers, mounts them on railway cars and sends them on their way, ironically aggrandizing to heroic proportions his colleague’s down-to-earth personality and democratic empathy. It’s a lovely tribute to a creator who was always an original – from her head to her toes.

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