Where women dare to tread
Milan Gregory Perera
She is among the finest in the pantheon of French Cinema. She was a trailblazer and a pioneer. Any movie buff who is worth their salt would know Agnès Varda. So, no introductions needed. Nowadays, platitudes have lost their meaning and popular and social media never stop referring to individuals as ‘Legends.’ What they fail to grasp is the fact that these titles should be earned over a period of time. As in the military services, ‘the stripes’ have to be earned with hard work and application. Agnès Varda eminently fitted into these titles of ‘Legend’ and ‘Pioneer.’ Her career spanned over 50 long years in which she was still working on movies till the year of her passing. With a chameleon like ability, she was able to read the zeitgeist of the time and adapt accordingly. She was never a ‘has been’. In the latter part of her life she often collaborated with upcoming artists without the slightest whiff of paternalism.
Varda was born on May 30 1928 in Ixelles, Brussels to a French mother and a Greek father. Originally called Arlette, she was the third of five children. To the surprise of many, her background was not in movies but in literature, history of art and photography. She studied literature at the Sorbonne and photography at l'Ecole Technique de Cinématographie et de Photographie. She also studied psychology while at the Sorbonne and art history at l’Ecole du Louvre. She was hardly a movie buff! When Varda made her first film, “La pointe courte” (1956), even up to that point she confessed to have watched only three or four movies. Unlike her colleagues in the New Wave, she did not launch her cinematic journey as a movie critic. She is considered part of the New Wave’s Left Bank group, along with Resnais, Marker, and Varda’s late husband, Jacques Demy; furthermore, she’s the only female director affiliated with the New Wave.
Varda has made all forms of film and video (over 40 titles), from fictional narratives to shorts comprised mostly of stills to documentaries. Most of them are somewhat essayistic without aiming to prove a thesis, but rather explore. Sometimes, this can make a movie sound like a meander, especially if Varda herself is narrating her images.
In 1962, Varda released her second and best-known feature, “Cléo from 5 to 7”, considered by many as a key feminist cinematic text. The protagonist Cléo (Corinne Marchand) is a vain pop star waiting for test results of a biopsy from her doctor in - the duration of the film (90 minutes rather than the two hours indicated in the film’s title).
“Le Bonheur (1964)” was Varda’s first colour feature and relies on bright lights and contrasts to portray that the institution of family is in trouble. It is often dubbed a piece ahead of its time: a feminist masterpiece wrapped in an enigmatic fairy tale. One of her most controversial works, it depicts a man who has an affair which results in his wife’s suicide. He mourns, but then takes up with his mistress as if nothing had happened or nothing mattered. This movie is a dark feminist critique of gender roles, marriage, domestic space, and film spectatorship.
Varda was not politically neutral. Though not a Trotskyist, she supported the revolution Cuba. Varda was invited with open arms to the newly established nation that rose from a bloody uprising. The 1963 short film “Salut les Cubains” consists of over 4,000 photos Varda took there, and 1,500 of them appear via stop-motion style animation in the documentary. It was made four years after Fidel Castro rose to power and he appears in the film, and Varda says in voiceover narration that “he incarnates Cuba the way Gary Cooper incarnates the wild west.”
Her attention was also drawn to the Black Panther Movement at the height of racial tensions in the United States. The 1970 movie “Black Panthers” provides an outsider's perspective on the much vilified revolutionary organisation. Varda documents gatherings and protests held in response to Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton’s arrest for the alleged murder of a police officer.
She came to Los Angeles and made Mur Murs (1980), a documentary about murals in the city, the colourful tableaus a fitting subject for her. She also made the feature Documenteur (1981), about a young, French mother (played by Sabine Mamou), recently separated from her partner, as she attempts to move on in Los Angeles with her son, played by Varda’s son, Mathieu. Biographers, especially Kelley Conway, pinpoint this as Varda’s personal favourite. According to Conway, this was “offering further elements of fragmented self-portraiture at a time when Varda’s prodigious creativity was offset by a painful isolation,”
Her latter works, too, displayed the same effervescence and vitality that were associated with the works in her youth. Her collaboration with the French visual artist JR certainly did not disappoint. It was brimming with mirth and optimism as the pair start exploring French countryside.
Agnès Varda accepted an honorary Oscar in 2017 during which she called Angelina Jolie and Jessica Chastain “my feminist guardian angels.” Her magnanimity knows no bounds. It was she herself who had been a feminist guardian angel who paved the path for a number of skilled female filmmakers.