On 29 March, the day the filmmaker and artist Agnès Varda died at the age of 90, the internet bloomed with images of female artists of all generations posing with the ‘grandmother of the French New Wave’. The line about The Velvet Underground sprang to mind: ‘They didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.’ Across the 64 years of her prolific output, Varda provided a blueprint for an experimental, politically-radical, idiosyncratically personal and wide-eyed humanist cinema. Every woman who met Varda, it seems, became a filmmaker.
Varda’s work ranges wildly in form and content. Her first film, 1955’s La Pointe Courte, is equal parts fictional romance story and ethnographic study of a French fishing village. She called it a ‘difficult read’ inspired by William Faulkner. Her later film, Vagabond (1985), follows Mona, a lost and drifting teenager who Varda referred to as her ‘rebel without a cause’. Daguerréotypes (1976), Ulysse (1983), and Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès, 2008), are just a few of her autobiographical essay films that return to people she’s filmed before, re-interviewing subjects, excavating photographs and restaging memories. In the 1960s and ’70s she made her California work, including the radical documentary Black Panthers (1968) and the counterculture hippie hangout film Lions Love (...and Lies) (1969). Throughout her films, she borrowed voraciously from art history. In The Beaches of Agnès René Magritte’s The Lovers (1928) is referenced in a nude set piece with her late-husband Jacques Demy; she cited Hans Baldung Grien’s chilling Death and the Maiden (1517) as the inspiration for communicating ‘voluptuous beauty and bony death’ in Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962); cast Andy Warhol superstar, Viva, in Lions Love (...and Lies); opened The Gleaners and I (2000) with the titular 1857 Jean-François Millet painting; and cast Jane Birkin as the subject of paintings by Titian and Goya in Jane B. Par Agnès V. (1988).
It’s accepted wisdom that Varda was the director of the first film of the French New Wave, but she somehow got saddled with the ‘grandmother’ moniker at the age of 30. I thought about that, and the wide scope of her feminist project when I recently watched One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977). The idiosyncratic musical follows a pregnant Suzanne, played by Thérèse Liotard, and her vivacious friend Pauline, the flame-haired Valérie Mairesse, from youth to middle age. Pauline helps Suzanne secure an illegal abortion to prevent a third child she can’t afford or manage, and the two are then bonded for the duration of their very different lives. Suzanne, an impoverished single mother, moves back home to her parent’s grim country farm and eventually opens a women’s health clinic. Pauline travels the country in a van, singing political pro-choice folk songs written by Varda herself and staging feminist performance art, interrupted briefly by a love affair in Iran that culminates in a pregnancy.
I had known that Varda had offered her home in Paris for abortions before they were legalized, and that she cites the 1972 Bobigny abortion trials (recreated in the film) as the site of her feminist radicalization. I had heard the film described as ‘an abortion musical’ and was unsurprised by its ferocious politics. But what I hadn’t expected, and was tremendously moved by, was the breadth and generosity of Varda’s exploration of motherhood and art-making; how inextricable love is from radical political choices. Her son, Mathieu Demy, appears as a toddler in the film, as does her daughter Rosalie Varda. A film that opens with the bleak tragedy of an unexpected pregnancy concludes with a beautiful multi-generational tableau comprised of the cast and Varda’s family.
It’s not to my credit that I was surprised; in Varda’s work the term ‘hybrid’ feels so paltry as to be absurd. Her life encompassed deep love, artistic expression and radical politics, and her films are a reflection of those priorities. The writer Sheila Heti told me that when she met Varda, she asked her how her filmmaking was changed by motherhood. Her answer was hilarious and ingeniously practical: ‘I decided to get an extension cord so I could make movies at home.’ It’s a solution which Varda demonstrates in The Beaches of Agnès, dragging a thick cable out of her house and down the block. Of course, motherhood, family and the larger business of living would not be an impediment to art-making for her: they were all one undertaking.
Across Varda’s tremendously diverse output, her larger project was a radical turning outwards, a continual collecting of voices and perspectives. Her filmmaking calls for revolution in both form and life, and for art-making as having a responsibility to both. As she said in her last interview: ‘I fought for radical cinema all my life.’
This article appeared in frieze issue 203 with the headline ‘Home Movies’
Main image: Agnès Varda, 2019. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Thomas Niedermueller
First published in Issue 203