Agnès Varda: The Filmmaker as Rigorous Friend

Agnès Varda: The Filmmaker as Rigorous Friend

The usual way to begin writing about Agnès Varda is to take note of her status as the only woman director associated with the French Nouvelle Vague. I’ve done it again just now for what I hope is the last time. Not because it isn’t accurate to place Varda, who died at 90 on Friday, in the company of confrères like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, but because the habit reflects a distorted view of film history, one that obscures both the singularity of Varda’s career and her place in the pantheon.

We are accustomed — and by “we” I mean ordinary cinephiles, male and female, as well as critics, scholars and list-makers — to thinking about the movie past as a chronicle of boys’ clubs, one new wave of testosterone after another. Women who make their mark behind the camera, as agents rather than objects of its gaze, tend to be seen as anomalies and alibis, special cases rather than central figures. Their existence can be cited as an exception to the sexism that ensures their scarcity, and the master narratives that treat their stories as more than footnotes or sidebars have yet to be written.

[Video highlights from Varda’s career.]

Varda’s work might be the place to start. Not only because of her feminism — which was consistent and complicated, unmistakable and impossible to circumscribe — but also because of her individuality. Like her friend Chris Marker, she made movies that didn’t so much transcend genre categories as ignore them altogether, finding possibilities for expression outside the usual classifications. She alternated between fiction and nonfiction, and also frequently combined them. Her essay films are also memoirs; her personal reflections are also political; her saddest movies are also her liveliest, and vice versa. “Documenteur,” from 1981, combines the word documentary with the French word for “liar.” It’s the masculine version of that word, even though the protagonist (Sabine Mamou) is a woman and the movie incorporates images from a documentary directed by Varda herself.

Some of her best-known films concern the experiences of young women making their way, alone and together, through modern landscapes full of promise and peril: “Cléo From 5 to 7”; “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t”; “Vagabond.” Each of those movies — from 1962, 1977 and 1986 — is an essential document of its decade. But they don’t stand alone. They connect. With one another, with Varda’s other films, with the work of colleagues and friends, with the places and faces that inhabit them.

An introduction to Varda might lead to the discovery of Shirley Clarke and Chantal Akerman, as well as Marker and Godard. The point is not to just to explore the possibility of a counter-canon of women who made films alongside and often in the shadow of male contemporaries, but also to reopen the questions of how we pay attention to movies and what movies invite us to pay attention to.

In Varda’s later films, starting with “The Gleaners and I” (2000), she frequently turned the camera on herself. She was a wonderful presence— playful, candid, impatient and kind — but these movies were not all about her. In putting herself onscreen, turning each feature into its own making-of documentary, she made explicit something we know about movies but often suppress or forget. What we watch is always being shown to us by someone, a person whose authority, whose status as auteur is usually secured by his or her (but mostly his) invisibility.

By putting herself — body, voice and mind — in the frame as she made her way across beaches and marketplaces, Varda insisted that filmmaking could be a kind of companionship, a communal act of looking, wondering and feeling. What makes “The Gleaners and I” and her last feature, “Faces Places” (co-directed with the artist J.R.) so moving is that they create a bond between director and viewer that feels very much like friendship.

I don’t mean this to sound soft or sentimental, or to create a misleading impression of niceness. Friends can be difficult. Friendship is demanding. It is also transformative, and if Varda was among the most welcoming of directors, she was also among the most rigorous and radical. Her movies are intensely personal, which is another way of saying that they are profoundly democratic. That’s the history that needs to be written.

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