An introduction to Agnes Varda

It’s been a great year for Agnès Varda, the Paris-based film-maker with a mushroom haircut and apparently boundless energy. In May she turned 90, and her latest film, her 22nd feature, Faces Places comes out in the UK in September. She has films and photographs being exhibited at FACT as part of this year’s Liverpool Biennial. Faces Places made her the oldest person ever nominated for an Oscar, and she attended the ceremony in January in fabulous floral Gucci, returning to LA after receiving an Honorary Oscar last November. Now is an especially good time to be introduced to or to revisit Varda’s career, to appreciate her films while we can thank her.

Varda made her first film, the ground-breaking La Pointe Courte, in 1954 on a minimal budget. She had seen very few films before making one of her own, and the result is striking. The film moves between documentary and fiction narratives, its appearance shaped by her work as a photographer with the Théâtre National Populaire and the narrative structure influenced by modernist literature.

Perhaps her most famous film, Cléo from 5 to 7 was an experiment with real-time film-making, starting at 5pm and following its titular character as she travels around Paris for the next hour and a half. While La Pointe Courte predates the main body of the French New Wave and earned Varda the nickname of being the “grandmother” of the New Wave, Cléo is even more contemporary and urgent, and makes a strong argument for Varda as a leader of the new wave, and not its grandmother.

Le Bonheur (Happiness) is a disconcerting film, striking in its amorality and refusal to cast judgement over the main male character as he cheats on his wife. The title is straightforwardly descriptive of the family in the film, except when it seems darkly sarcastic. This film is smart and subversive and lends itself to endless discussion afterwards.

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is a feminist musical about the fight for legal abortion in France, told through the friendship between two women, and their different journeys through life and relationships with motherhood. It’s one of Varda’s more overtly political films, but remains very much rooted in interpersonal relationships and the political potential of the women as individuals, who change the lives of those around them. The song ‘Papa Engels’ might give the film an extra note of relevancy for the HOME audience.

Vagabond is a particularly influential film of Varda’s. It tells the story of Mona, a young woman without a home, constructing the last weeks of her life from the recollections of the people she crossed paths with. The film feels like a documentary though it is not, and teases out the differences between Mona and what people want from her and their expectations.

Jacquot de Nantes is a biopic Varda made about the childhood of Jacques Demy, her husband and a fellow film-maker, when he was ill and as he approached his death. Three actors portray the young Demy, and he appears as himself too, and the result is a touching portrait of a boy learning to become a film-maker.

The Gleaners and I takes its roots in an exploration of food poverty and the practice of taking waste or unwanted food from harvests and markets, but also becomes a mediation on the practice of making art and the role of the artist. This is a must for people who love documentaries, and Varda’s embrace of chance encounters means there is something for everyone here.

In The Beaches of Agnes, Varda looks back at her career and re-situates her work, framed by her love of beaches. Though this is a late film of Varda’s it features material from or about much of her career and can make for a good introduction to the breadth of her work.

All this builds to Faces Places, a collaboration with the French photographer and graffiti artist JR. The two of them travel around France, photographing people and getting to know the stories of rural areas. Varda’s wit gets to play off against her younger co-director’s, and the two have a very engaging relationship.

So whether you know Varda’s work or have been waiting to be introduced to her, we’ve got you covered. View the full season here.

Words by Hazel Shaw, PHD student at The University of Manchester. Hazel joins us at HOME on Sun 26 of Aug to introduce The Beaches of Agnes.