This was the first photo I saw of Agnès, and it struck me instantly. A woman operating a camera, standing on a man’s back. I was introduced to her films in my high school French class and decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker as well. This experience, significant in my life, is shared by many women who were similarly inspired by her.
Just days before the end of Women’s History Month, we lost a pioneering female filmmaker. On March 29th, Agnès Varda passed away at her home in Paris. This week, we celebrate her 64-year-long filmmaking career, which charted the course for generations of female filmmakers that have followed her lead.
Commonly referred to as the Mother, Grandmother, or Godmother of the French New Wave, Varda was undeniably a trailblazer; the only female filmmaker during the influential film movement of the 1950s and 1960s. “I know I was a pioneer,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in November 2017. “I made a radical film [La Pointe Courte] in 1955, and what they called the New Wave started in ’59, ’60, those years. When I made my first film, I was out of the world of cinema and I didn’t know anybody around and I didn’t even see film. So out of the blue I invented the film, and I succeeded to make very little money, but it was something I wanted to do.”
LA POINTE COURTE came out five years before the debut of films widely recognized as New Wave classics, like François Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS or Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS. While the movement challenged form, narrative, and cinematic style, Varda’s male contemporaries maintained tradition in their depictions of women. Cinephiles, too, traditionally revered the work of these male directors, who achieved more fame and financial success. Varda spoke about being omitted from history books and from special issues of Cahiers du Cinéma, the hallmark publication dedicated to French cinema. “I was just plain forgotten,” she said. She kept going even if, as she admitted in 1986, with each film she had “to fight like a tiger.”
Varda was a driving force of feminist filmmaking, creating a female cinematic voice and giving agency to her female protagonists. Her 1961 film CLÉO FROM 5 TO 7 gives its female protagonist her own vision and agency, rather than a typically objectified portrayal through a male gaze. Varda’s 1977 film ONE SINGS, THE OTHER DOESN’T explores the budding feminist and pro-choice movement in France through a lifelong friendship between two women.
Perhaps her most feminist work is VAGABOND from 1985, a drama about the death of a young female drifter, dirty and wandering around with a tent on her back, de-fetishizing the female body from the male perspective. Of her protagonist in VAGABOND, Varda said, “In all women there is something in revolt which is not expressed.”
Varda became more widely-recognized in the U.S. in her later years. In 2017 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded her an honorary Oscar—the first to salute a female director—for “compassion and curiosity [that] inform a uniquely personal cinema.” A few weeks after receiving that honor at the Governors Awards, she was nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category for FACES PLACES, making her the oldest person ever to be nominated for a competitive Oscar at the time.
We were privileged to honor her at the Women In Film Oscar Nominees Party last year. This class photo, taken that evening, feels especially symbolic of her impact. Agnès, standing front and center, surrounded by a group of female filmmakers who are also being celebrated for their achievements in filmmaking. Surely, in the ’50s and ’60s, Agnès would be the only woman in that photo. Women in the screen industries would not be where they are today had it not been for the the path that Agnès led with her will and her art.
For me, Agnès is cinema personified. What I’ll continue to celebrate and admire most about her is that her films are so uniquely her own and challenge what can be possible in the medium. With each film, I’m looking through her eyes, and I can see her calculated influence through every shot and movement. In her autobiographical documentary THE BEACHES OF AGNÈS she says, “In here, it feels like I live in cinema, cinema is my home. I think I’ve always lived in it.”
Her legacy, her light, and her force survive her. Thank you, Agnès.
“Life is short, the ephemeral is everywhere, so we go on making art.”
All the best,
Women In Film
Development and Communications Coordinator