Critic's Notebook: Agnès Varda Was a Living Work of Art

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

The punk-haired, constantly self-reinventing New Wave pioneer retained her playful, wise and humane spirit in a dazzling career spanning more than six decades.

Forever blurring the borders between art and life, work and play, fact and fiction, Agnès Varda was a mother of reinvention, as much living artwork as pioneering filmmaker and proto-feminist icon. The Oscar-winning queen mother of French New Wave cinema, whose death at 90 was announced today, had a childlike mischief and tireless curiosity that sustained a remarkably diverse career spanning more than six decades. “Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love,” she says in her final film, Varda by Agnès (2019).

A gnome-like figure with an impish grin and an electric mop of two-tone hair, Varda was an unmissable fixture on the film festival circuit even in old age. Her unique “punk” hairstyle, she told me during a 2009 interview, was all part of her mission to make everyday life into an artistic statement. “It's a way of being creative,” she explained to me when I interviewed her for The Times. “Everything can be creative."

Born in Belgium to a Greek father and French mother, Varda and her family relocated to the Mediterranean coast during World War II. Christened with the diminutive Arlette, which she hated, she legally renamed herself Agnès at 18. It was one of her first acts of artistic rebellion and creative reinvention. After that, she never stopped.

In the 1950s, Varda moved to Paris to study photography and work at the Theatre National Populaire. There she met a bohemian group of aspiring filmmakers and writers including Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and her future husband, Jacques Demy. Perhaps because she emerged alongside such a stellar cohort of big-hitting, alpha-male contemporaries, Varda's crucial role as a rule-breaking visionary has long been underplayed. Only in her later life did film historians come to recognize the stylistic daring and bold originality of her early work. Indeed, she has a claim to be the greatest of the New Wave auteurs, though she would never make such an immodest boast herself.

Varda's fresh modernist eye was evident right from her stylish debut feature La Pointe Courte (1955), starring Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret, which blends drama and documentary into a cool Bergman-esque hybrid. Unfolding in real time, her chic Pop Art masterpiece Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) stars Catherine Marchand as a young Parisian singer anxiously awaiting ominous cancer test results. Featuring a cameo role and jazzy score by Michel Legrand, this kinetic depiction of nervy urban unease would prove inspirational to Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski. Decades later, Madonna even looked into remaking it.

But it is Varda's subversively sunny Happiness (1965) that arguably stands as her most potent and prophetic early work. Casting real-life married couple actors Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot as husband and wife, she deconstructs the hidden sexual power relations of an outwardly perfect marriage with calm, surgical precision. Varda recently called this cryptic, controversial, feminist classic “a beautiful summer peach with a worm inside."

Varda and Demy relocated to L.A. during Hollywood's short-lived honeymoon with the European New Wave in the late 1960s. Alas, her brief flirtation with major studios only produced a disastrous experiment in hippie chic, Lions Love (1969). Denied final cut on another planned project, she stood her ground and effectively threw away a budding U.S. career. “I made a stand like a stubborn, enraged young woman,” she told me with a rueful shrug. “When you're a radical, like I was, you don't even think enough. I've been stupid most of my life."

But Varda would enjoy further fame back home in France, hitting new commercial heights with Vagabond (1985). Starring Sandrine Bonnaire as a young homeless woman drifting through rural France, this coolly compassionate, bleakly beautiful study in martyrdom and misogyny became Varda's biggest international hit. "I was very interested about xenophobia against lonely people," she explained. "Being dirty is a problem in our society. You can be poor but you must be clean."

Varda's husband of 32 years, Jacques Demy, died of an AIDS-related illness in 1990. She memorialized him in typically left-field creative style with Jacquot de Nantes (1990), a lyrical hybrid of documentary, dramatized biography and cinematic love letter. “I don't know how I will be when I face my death,” Varda told me. “I don't know if I will be as courageous."

Remarkably, Varda reinvented herself in later life as a socially conscious documentary maker and visual artist, balancing DIY nonfiction films like The Gleaners and I (2000) with colorful, playful, witty art installations. Her works were displayed at the Venice Biennale, the Cartier Foundation in Paris and New York's Museum of Modern Art, among others. She also rounded off her directing career in majestic style with two joyous, quirky, visually ravishing documentaries, the prize-winning The Beaches of Agnès (2008) and her swan song film, Varda by Agnès (2019).

Somewhat belatedly, Varda was deluged with prizes in her autumn years, picking up both an honorary Oscar and honorary Palme d'Or. Just last year, she became the oldest person ever to be nominated in a competitive Oscar category for her collaborative documentary Faces Places (2017), a typically charming and visually dazzling journey through contemporary French society.

“Now that I'm old they want to give me something everywhere,” she joked in a Hollywood Reporter interview in February this year. “So I have two closets full! I say thank you as if someone gives you a gift, but I think it's unfair. Some other woman, some other director should have it.”

Modest, wise, funny and humane to her dying breath, Varda earned her place in the pantheon of great filmmakers precisely because she never coveted that place. A life lived so generously is a gift to the entire human race.