Agnès Varda - a life of cats, freedom, mirrors and heart-shaped potatoes
The godmother of French New Wave died, at the age of 90.
Agnès Varda left us with an incommensurable catalogue of films, photographs and multimedia installations that explore social and political issues in a viscerally personal way and celebrate the joy and beauty of life and art.
Born in Brussel in 1928, she was the third of five children. Her mom was French and her father Greek. Agnes studied photography, but soon she moved to films. Her photographic and documentarist approach remained well evident throughout her whole production.
During World War II she lived with her family on a boat in Sète, Fance. Years after, in 1954, in the same fishermen village she realised La Pointe Courte, her first feature film. On her admission, she was far from being a film buff and she never studied or had ever been a director’s assistant. Nevertheless, La Pointe Courte represents a cornerstone of contemporary cinema and, with its location shooting, non professional actors and almost documentarist style, it is considered to be the forerunner of the French New Wave. André Bazin wrote about it on theCahiers du Cinéma: “there is a total freedom to the style, which produces the impression, so rare in the cinema, that we are in the presence of a work that obeys only the dreams and desires of its auteur with no other external obligations”.
That was just the first step of a prolific and experimental sixty-years-long career that was celebrated in 2017 with an Academy Honorary Awards. If on one side Varda happily brought her lighthearted ways into the heavy tradition of the Academy, even improvising a dance with Angelina Jolie on stage, on the other side, she said in a Vice interview: “I’m very honoured. But it’s a poor Oscar, or Oscar of the poor”. Meaning that most of the people she knew who were awarded with it (as Jean-Luc Godard) were “people well known in the field of cinema, but who have never made money”. A positive consideration for an author that has never compromised her vision and her creation to commercial standards and who always avoided, as she stated proudly multiple times, directing advertisements.
To preserve her freedom from the mainstream industry rules, she funded with her husband, and New Wave director, Jacques Demi, Cinè-Tamaris, her own production company. Its iconic logo reminds her lifelong passion for cats - one of the things that makes Varda such a relatable and sweet character. The feline is Zgougou, her female cat. She was “a queen, a presenter, a dominatrix”, Varda described her in the short Hommage à Zgougou. And her ruling role was meekly accepted by Bernard, the male cat, who shared with her the production office.
Agnès is a symbol of the feminist cinema. “I tried to be a joyful feminist, but I was very angry” she said in The Beaches of Agnès. She also became one of the “343 sluts” to sign the “Manifesto of the 343”. She publicly acknowledged her abortion to protest the French government’s reproductive rights new policies. Even though she has never had a feminist agenda, her introspective and personal work is based around female characters and an exquisite female sensibility and point of view on life. "I'm not at all a theoretician of feminism, I did all that—my photos, my craft, my film, my life—on my terms, my own terms, and not to do it like a man”.
Now we are left with her mirrors, self-portrait tools populating her films and works, reflecting her personality and all the people that surrounded her, who loved her and whom she loved, because ultimately as she said our “life is made of encounters”.
Now people are leaving heart-shaped potatoes, along with flowers, in front of 86 rue Daguerre, where she lived - the same street she portrayed in her 1976 documentary Daguerréotypes.
They are the perfect tribute for Dame Patate, as Agnés was fondly known as. Second to the cats’ one, Varda’s longtime fascination with tubers finds a kinetic reference in her 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I, where she confronted the themes of poverty and waste of resources.
In 2017 she described herself as “as a heart-shaped potato – growing again”, referring to her return to film with her most recent work Faces, Places (2017), a documentary adventure through France with JR. The contemporary artist also taught and pushed her to use Instagram, allowing us to have an intimate peek on her bright life and personality.
It’s emblematic and touching her last post on Instagram: Nini, her new cat, sitting on Varda’s director’s chair. This is how we want to remember and celebrate her. Through lightness and disarming simplicity. A brutal and beautiful honesty that pervades the work that she created. The same works that created the gigantic and gentle myth of Agnés Varda.