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The Charmed Life of Agnès Varda

The legendary filmmaker did it her way, her life as much an inspiration as her work.

GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP/Getty Images

Agnès Varda, who died this week at the age of 90, was small and loved to wear polka dots. In later years her signature bowl cut became a monk-like two-toned affair, with white roots and maroon ends. Her distinctive look fit with her philosophy of creating film, in that she was wholly committed to portraying the world as she experienced it. Not as Truffaut or any other member of the French New Wave experienced it, or according to any of the traditions that preceded her work. Varda trained her own eye.

Born Arlette Varda in Brussels in 1928 (she changed her name at age 18), she studied literature and psychology at the Sorbonne, then photography at the École des Beaux-Arts. She earned a living snapping family portraits before making her first movie, La Pointe Courte, in 1954. She had zero experience in film, but knew that she wanted to make movies about the times she was living in. Critics loved it, and Varda immediately became a big name, since it was so rare for an untrained woman to debut in such style. It made no money.

Her most famous early movie was 1962’s Cléo de 5 à 7, which more than any other encapsulates the French New Wave. In real time, we follow Cléo, a beautiful singer, as she awaits the result of a biopsy. We open in color, with a shot from above as a Tarot reader deals cards for the heroine. Then, in black and white, we join Cléo in her two hours of purgatory: shopping for hats, working with her composer, driving with a friend.

To film a life minute by minute, what does that mean? There is no single perspective on life, in reality, nor does an hour exist solely for one person. Here Varda is not expressing universal sentiments. Instead she gives us life as it feels for Cléo. She is beautiful and well-known, so everybody stares at her everywhere she goes. Paris seems entirely clad in mirrors throughout the film, as if Cléo’s own reflection is haunting her. She is trapped by the act of looking, by the prison of being seen. With Cléo de 5 à 7, Varda manages an extraordinary thing—communicating Cléo’s feeling of being watched, while she herself watches Cléo, with a camera.

Varda was a feminist filmmaker, of course. The nature of Varda’s feminism, however was not theoretical; as in Cléo de 5 à 7, it was personal. This is best seen in Varda’s documentary work, where she often appeared as herself, the filmmaker.

In the 2000 film Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (The Gleaners and I), Varda wanders France to film gleaners—people who harvest in the fields, but also people who recover the scraps and detritus of other people’s lives to create new things. By implication Varda too is a gleaner, a person who practices “cinécriture”—her term for her art, which translates as writing-cinema—to record the world around her, as she sees it.

She also appears in Faces Places (2017), the first of her films to be nominated for an Oscar. Along with the much younger artist JR, Varda travels through rural France and creates enormous portraits of the subjects she meets. The two artists place these images on walls, on the sides of buildings. They chat with each other about the meaning of home, about the meaning of working with film. At one stage JR tells her that they need to keep working, “before it’s too late.” Varda shoots back, “Before it’s too late for me?” He denies the implication, but Varda is too quick for him. She explains that “chance has always been my best assistant.” It’s best for them to work with no plan—to simply see where time takes them.

There are different ways of working and living “on one’s own terms.” Varda’s extraordinary good humor and generosity made her commitment to independent work a charming, rather than a self-aggrandizing, stance. Faces Places introduced a new generation of young film fans to the Varda philosophy, which epitomizes, to me, the well-lived female artistic life. She was totally committed to her own look, regardless of fashion, and unceasing in her confidence that chance, whim, observation, and passion would yield beautiful cinema. Though associated with the French New Wave, her work resists categorization: She moved through forms and media with ease. Her career teaches as much about how to be a person as it does about how to make movies. Know oneself and then be it, Varda seemed to say, and great work will follow.