Agnès Varda, Pioneering French Filmmaker, Dead at 90
Agnès Varda, the influential matriarch of the French New Wave who received an honorary Oscar and an Academy Award documentary nomination in the span of three months in 2017-18, has died. She was 90, just one day shy of her 91st birthday.
Varda died at home surrounded by family and friends following a short battle with cancer, her family confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter.
When her feature documentary Faces Places (2017)was nominated, the impish Varda became the oldest person to ever receive a competitive nom (she was eight days older than eventual adapted screenplay winner James Ivory of Call Me by Your Name.)
Her films were uniquely structured. La Pointe Courte (1955), her directorial debut, contained double narration; Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) took place in virtual real time; Vagabond (1985) was made up of 13 tracking shots; and Jane B. par Agnes V. (1988) was a portrait with deliberately missing pieces.
Across generations and publications, Varda was referred to as either the “mother,” “godmother” or “grandmother” of the French New Wave.
“I know I was a pioneer,” she told The Hollywood Reporter’s Gregg Kilday in November 2017. “I made a radical film [La Pointe Courte] in 1955, and what they called the New Wave started in ’59, ’60, those years. When I made my first film, I was out of the world of cinema and I didn’t know anybody around and I didn’t even see film. So out of the blue I invented the film, and I succeeded to make very little money, but it was something I wanted to do.”
Varda also coined the term “cinecriture” (writing on film) to define her personal cinematic language. For her, there was no separation of the fundamental roles of filmmaking.
“The composition, the movements, the points of view, the rhythm of the shoot and the editing have been chosen and thought out in a similar way to the words of an author,” she explained in 2003.
Varda’s other films included the provocative Le Bonheur (1965), which examined infidelity; Les Creatures (1966), a drama-fantasy she later recycled 35mm prints of into an art installation called My Failure Shack; and the documentary The Gleaners and I (2000).
Gleaners was voted by Sight & Sound film professionals as the eighth greatest documentary of all time. Its title refers to those who scavenge for food, knickknacks and items of worth that have been discarded in the French countryside and city. The film itself includes scraps of accidental footage that otherwise would have been junked.
Varda’s films rarely turned a profit, and her recognition was never as prominent outside of Europe and fervent cinephiles. The year 2017, however, brought her newfound renown.
“Muse. Trailblazer. Icon. A woman who launched a cinema movement,” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president John Bailey said of Varda as he introduced her at the Governors Awards. She received her Honorary Oscar — the first female director to be saluted — for “compassion and curiosity [that] inform a uniquely personal cinema.”
A few weeks after receiving that honor at the Governors Awards, she was nominated in the best documentary feature category for Faces Places.
In the documentary, Varda and photographer-muralist J.R. (her co-writer and co-director on the film) take a journey through rural France. They drive around in a van that contains a photo booth and plaster large paper photographs anywhere they choose. Ut was named best documentary at the Spirit Awards.
Born on May 30, 1928, in Ixelles, Belgium, Varda began her career as a photographer — “children around me, family, marriage, banquets,” she once said — and was eventually appointed official photographer of the People’s National Theater in France.
Her first child, Rosalie, was from her relationship with Antoine Bourseiller, who starred in Cleo From 5 to 7. (Rosalie was a producer on Faces Places.)
In 1962, Varda married famed French director Jacques Demy,and they had a son, Mathieu. Both of her children worked for the family company Cine-Tamaris, which distributed Varda and Demy films.
Demy’s film career paralleled Varda’s for 40 years until his death from AIDS complications in 1990.
A year later, she released Jacquot de Nantes, a poignant dramatization of her husband’s childhood. As she was being feted at the Governors Awards, Varda carried with her a large photograph of Demy.
Before Varda was brought to the stage, she was lauded by Angelina Jolie, Jessica Chastain, Kimberly Peirce and documentary film editor Kate Amend as a pioneering female filmmaker.
“We need to draw strength from artists like Agnes,” Jolie said, “those women who went first, who took that first step, showed the way for all of us.” To which Varda later quipped, “Are there no men in this room who love me?”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.