Remembering Agnès Varda’s Independent Spirit with Five Must-Watch Films
On March 29, the film world lost one of the few remaining greats of the French New Wave: Agnès Varda. Varda’s eclectic career spanned over six decades and was experiencing one of its greatest peaks with the success of 2017’s Faces Places, which just a year prior had taken home Best Documentary at the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards. Not bad for an 89-year-old woman who had steadfastly managed to do things her way for years and years, despite the ever-shifting film landscape. And since Varda’s passing, tributes and appreciations have unsurprisingly flooded the cineaste-friendly corners of the internet.
Born in Belgium in 1928, Varda relocated to Paris after WWII—first reinventing herself as a successful photographer before transitioning to film. With an eye for gritty social realism that nevertheless remained playful in its touch and iconic in its image-making, Varda’s first feature was 1954’s neo-realist La Pointe Courte, which paved a stylistic path forward for La Nouvelle Vague auteurs like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Eventually, Varda would come to be considered the “Grandmother of the French New Wave.”
Unfortunately, apart from a few key titles much of Varda’s filmography can be difficult to find. But we’ve done our best to highlight a few titles below for you to seek out and enjoy. So au reviour and happy watching!
CLÉO FROM 5 TO 7 (1962)
Starring: Corrinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dominique Davray
Where You Can Watch: Kanopy, DVD/Blu-ray (Criterion Collection)
Why We Love It: Ostensibly set in real time between the hours of 5:00 and 7:00 pm on a very eventful Parisian day, beautiful young singer Cléo (Marchand) visits a tarot reader, hoping to glean some information about the results of a just-taken cancer test. Leaving without a definitive answer, Cléo spends the next two hours anxiously trying to keep herself (and her mind) occupied, buzzing from one corner of the city to the other: rehearsing music, listening to reports of the Algerian War on the radio, eavesdropping on people at a busy café. Eventually, she crosses paths with a nervous young soldier (Bourseiller) facing down his own potentially impending mortality. In classic French New Wave style, they share an intimate series of lengthy conversations about life, love and art, at least ending the harrowing two-hour journey far less lonely than she had begun it.
FACES PLACES (2017)
Starring: Agnès Varda, JR
Where You Can Watch: Netflix, Kanopy, Vudu, Playstation One
Why We Love It: A surprise art house hit upon its release two years ago, Varda’s final film—directed in collaboration with French street artist and photographer JR—is an odd cross-generational buddy-comedy travelogue. A longtime admirer of Varda’s work, JR enlists the 88-year-old auteur for an ambitious cross-country multi-media project: together, they will travel the French countryside, befriending locales and using them as inspiration for a series of enormous murals decorating key structures in the subjects’ lives (a barn for a farmer, the exterior of the last remaining row house in a dispossessed mining town, etc.) The resulting documentary is a surprisingly deep and entertaining meditation on friendship, aging and a rapidly changing provincial France that both filmmakers clearly have a deep love for.
KUNG FU MASTER (1988)
Starring: Jane Birkin, Mathieu Demy, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Where You Can Watch: Kanopy, Fandor
Why We Love It: Kung Fu is the controversial tale of the star-crossed “romance” between a disillusioned middle-aged housewife Mary Jane (Birkin) and 14-year-old schoolboy Julien (Demy), who doesn’t love anything nearly as much as he loves his kung-fu video games. This 1988 drama premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival but struggled for years to find proper distribution—much to Varda’s frustration. Not exactly Harold and Maude, this portrait of existential ennui and the false escape promised by youth is made all the more interesting by its cast. Co-written by Varda and Birken, the two women populate the film with their own family members. Birken’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Mary Jane’s teenage daughter “Lucy,” while Varda’s son Matthieu plays the object of Mary Jane’s taboo obsession.
THE BEACHES OF AGNÉS (2008)
Starring: Agnès Varda
Where You Can Watch: Kanopy, Fandor, MUBI, Hoopla, iTunes
Why We Love It: Essentially functioning as Varda’s autobiography, The Beaches of Agnès is part memoir, part behind-the-scenes look at the creative process and part extended video essay about art and life unfolding (in all its forms) over the course of a very eventful 2oth century. Like the lifelong artist she is, Varda revisits key memories and important life moments using a variety of mixed media: still photos, consumer-grade video, archival footage, interviews, film clips and more, interviewing friends, collaborators and explaining—or is it wondering?—in voiceover just what this “Agnès Varda” person is all about. A large part of the film understandably focuses on Varda’s three-decade marriage to the late filmmaker Jacques Demy, incorporating intimate home movies for an inside look at their remarkable partnership.
THE YOUNG GIRLS TURN 25 (1993)
Where You Can Watch: Agnès Varda Collection, The Young Girls of Rochefort Crition DVD/Blu-ray (special feature)
Starring: Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy, Catherine Deneuve
Why We Love It: Alongside The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort arguably stands as French New Wave director Jacques Demy’s signature film: an effervescent, candy-colored, yet self-aware, pop musical about small town life along the Northern coast of France. Demy, of course, was Varda’s longtime husband, and she was right there for the filming of Rochefort with her own camera, capturing the complete making-of. But nothing much was done with the footage until 1993, when this short, lovely remembrance of Varda’s experience on set premiered—three years after Demy’s death. Equal parts cinema history and a love letter to a dearly departed spouse, the film can now be found on the Rochefort Criterion release.
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