How Agnès Varda revolutionised the inner lives of women on screen

In her remarkable decades of filmmaking, Varda charted the female experience with unconventional humanity and intelligence.

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Agnès Varda’s 1965 film Le Bonheur takes place in the overwhelmingly verdant French countryside, at the height of summer. Varda employed the actor Jean-Claude Drouot and his real wife and children to play a fictional family against this sun-dappled setting. But this Edenic vision is fragile – when Drouot’s character falls for another woman and attempts to integrate his adultery into an otherwise peaceful home life, tragedy awaits.

Varda shows us an idyllic family home subject to the selfish whims of a man who seems to be able to find happiness in spite of (or maybe because of) the fact that he finds women essentially interchangeable. Le Bonheur is a gorgeously rendered film combining profound cynicism about domesticity with a simultaneous understanding of its appeals, drenching its images with impressionistic primary colour.

Agnès Varda, who passed away on 29 March – just a couple of months shy of her 91st birthday, is known best as one of the only women produced by the French New Wave, sometimes called its “mother” or “grandmother”. Varda’s first film – La Pointe Courte – came out in 1955, a half-decade before the splashy New Wave debut landmarks by men. While they radically reinvented form, Varda’s male contemporaries in the New Wave largely remained traditional in their depictions of the opposite sex. Considered alongside the spritely and deceptive women of Jean-Luc Godard’s Sixties films, Varda’s interest in male callousness and the disposability of women seems all the more poignant.

She also cheerfully unravelled conventional cinematic language in the process. In her 1962 film Cléo from 5 to 7, Corinne Marchand plays a gorgeous pop star wandering the Paris streets, suffering from a crippling bout of existential terror after a possible cancer diagnosis. The film runs at what is close to real time, but still feels abnormally stretched, reflecting the awful subjectivity of time while waiting on bad news. A rumination on vanity and identity unlike any other of its era, Cléo adopts a beautiful woman’s subjective viewpoint, rejecting the superficial, idealised image of her as seen by others.

In the remarkable decades of feature filmmaking to come, Varda would take an interest in the inner lives of women in a way few of her male contemporaries would think to. Alongside her husband, the director Jacques Demy, she moved to California in the late 1960s, where she made radical documentaries on subjects like the Black Panthers and street muralists. In 1977, Varda released her most explicitly political film: One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. Exploring the burgeoning feminist and pro-choice movement in France through a lifelong friendship between two women, it was released only a year after France had legalised abortion. Varda herself had been at the front lines, and her film allows its characters to openly expound on the women’s movement. Yet this is no inflexible political screed. Utilising protest song and performance, One Sings, The Other Doesn’t is a delightfully optimistic almost-musical that manages to fit a Friedrich Engels quote into a pop-folk song.

In what is arguably Varda’s finest film, Vagabond (1985), things are not so hopeful. Sandrine Bonnaire plays Mona, a young drifter who wanders friendlessly through a wintery rural landscape with a tent on her back. This is a deeply dangerous prospect for a woman alone. She disavows social and feminine constraints – even personal tidiness – fascinating and revolting the conventional women she meets on her travels. Discarded and deemed useless by society, Mona’s rebelliousness can only lead to misfortune.

Varda films this unmoored girl in a series of striking long pans from right to left, often moving past her subject in an effort at affording her dignity. Those signature camera pans crop up in several of Varda’s works, their sense of wide-eyed meandering offering a formal match to her curious spirit.

Thanks to the input of international film scholars, critics, and programmers, Varda saw a glut of career retrospectives and celebrations of her work in her final years. In 2017, she received an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement. Last year, the British Film Institute held a season of screenings of Varda’s work, and a touring programme called Gleaning Truths brought her films to cinemas around the UK. She graced the cover of Sight & Sound in July of last year.

This late-career popularity has stopped just short of making Varda into a meme, in part thanks to her distinctive bowl cut and tiny frame. Cardboard cut-outs of her, endless tweets about her eccentric red carpet ensembles, and even t-shirts bearing her name could perhaps seem patronising, leaning into a “kooky old lady” trope ill-suited to a filmmaker of seven decades worth of masterpieces. It’s true that this treatment wouldn’t be afforded to respected male film veterans, but Varda’s renewed prominence has also undeniably put her back in the focus of a whole new generation of filmgoers and writers. Audiences have responded to the humanity and intellectual might of her work, but there is, too, something charming in the way Varda carried herself: with seemingly inexhaustible playfulness and grace.  

This kind of canonical treatment for a living female filmmaker was and is still relatively rare. In a talk she gave at BFI last summer, she said, modestly, “I’m so proud that people remember my films. It’s my reward because I never made money. I got awards, especially in the last ten years because I’m old and they want me to be happy in my last years.” Varda’s final-act fame should be an instructive example going forward. That she began working before the rise of second-wave feminism and lived to see her artwork lionised by fourth-wave feminism is a remarkable thing.

“In all women there is something in revolt which is not expressed,” Varda once said of her protagonist in Vagabond. Her films express exactly that sense of revolt, in both form and content. She was an auteur in a true sense, marrying a deeply personal vision of the female psyche to her affectionate portraits of characters both real and fictional. As tributes and remembrances of Varda pour in, it’s heartening to know that along with her peerless body of work, her rare longevity and visibility may provide a blueprint for the future of film.