"I’m playing the role of a little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative, telling her life story."
Agnès Varda speaks these words, in her lilting Parisian French, at the beginning of The Beaches of Agnès, an autobiographical film that came out in 2010, on the eve of her 80th birthday, and is now getting a re-release at London’s BFI Southbank, as part of a two-month retrospective.
"And yet it’s others I’m interested in, others I like to film," she says.
Varda’s relationship with film dates back a long, long way. The Beaches of Agnès takes us back to footage of La Pointe Courte, Varda’s debut film, made when she was barely 27 years old. It came out in 1955, a full five years before Jean-Luc Godard released Breathless, the film widely credited with launching the aesthetic and politically revolutionary filmic movement known as the nouvelle vague.
La Pointe Courte is an audacious, provocative and powerful film, in which the stylised conversations of a married couple sensing their end combine with a starkly realist depiction of an impoverished southern French town. Varda was, at that time, a stills photographer, with no experience of directing whatsoever.
A few years later, as she turned 30, Varda began work on Cléo from 5 to 7. The film was released in 1962, a year before Godard followed up Breathless with the other works most often used to confer his greatness, Contempt and Band of Outsiders.
Varda is often referred to as the "grandmother" of the nouvelle vague, despite being virtually the same age as her contemporaries – Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and her husband Jacques Demy.
Yet, still, and for some seemingly inexplicable reason, Varda remains a largely unrecognised figure. In comparison to the sheer volume of column inches her male counterparts inspired – and continue to inspire – she has spent much of her life as a sideline, a second thought. Yet based on the aesthetic quality of her films, the often prophetic relevance of the themes she explores, and the sheer longevity of her career, Agnès Varda should be among the most famous and iconic names in all of filmmaking.
Cléo from 5 to 7, which is screening at the BFI this week as part of her retrospective and will be released next month by Curzon cinemas, is a case in point. Shot in real time, live on the streets of early '60s Paris, and exhibiting the most remarkable tracking shots (decades before the advent of digital cameras), Cléo follows an hour-and-a-half of a young woman’s life as she anxiously yet gracefully waits to find out whether she has cancer.
What’s often overlooked is how deeply misogynistic many of the nouvelle vague films are. In Contempt, for example, Brigitte Bardot is casually and repeatedly hit to the floor by her lover Jack Palance for the merest provocation, while being preyed on by an older, powerful man who could potentially help her with her career. In Band of Outsiders, Anna Karina is cruelly used as little more than a plaything and a bartering chip by her insouciant criminal friends.
Over a similar timeframe, Varda was making films that intimately, sensitively and playfully explored the world from a woman’s point of view. Maybe the best example is a slightly later film, Varda’s 1977 drama One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, which spans more than a decade of historic changes regarding women's rights. The film is set in rural France in the 1960s, and is orientated around the friendship between two young women, one an independent mother, the other pregnant and seeking an illegal abortion. After a period apart, the two women meet again in 1972, at a protest outside a courthouse where a separate woman is on trial for having an abortion, a medical practice outlawed in France until 1975.
And unlike many of nouvelle vague’s big names, Varda continued to work. One of her best films came later in her life, inspired by a sad little moment many of us have experienced. Drinking a coffee near her Parisian home on rue Daguerre, Montparnasse, her eyes were drawn to a disparate group of homeless men and women. The local market had ended for the day, and the vendors were packing up their stalls. Among them, the destitute were picking through scraps of food discarded on the pavement. "I looked carefully, and suddenly a sentence came into my head: they are about to eat what we throw away," she once said of the moment. A couple of years later, in 2000, she released The Gleaners and I, a reflective documentary about the citizens of France who survive on refuse. Without hectoring or lecturing, her point is forceful and clear – we waste so much, when so many of us still want.
The Beaches of Agnès was released on the eve of her 80th birthday. At the time, she said it would be her last film, and critics dutifully framed it as a sort of goodbye. As it turns out, as her 90th birthday approaches, Varda is still making films, travelling the world and sharing her thoughts. In that time, the film industry has begun to wake up to the giant in its midst. In 2015, Varda was awarded an honorary Palme d’Or – one of only two female filmmakers to have been awarded in Cannes’ 71-year history.
Age has not quietened her either. At the Cannes Film Festival this year, she co-led a protest of 82 women to decry the mistreatment and lack of recognition of women in cinema. Stood next to Cate Blanchett, Varda said to the press: "Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of our industry says otherwise."
Most of the other denizens of the nouvelle vague have now left this world or retired from public life. Godard, for his part, has become a sneering recluse, never leaving his Parisian home, decrying modern day culture as far beneath him.
Varda, in comparison, has remained an incredibly active and engaged cultural figure. This month, she was wooing audiences at the BFI Southbank as her remastered films played on the big screen, as well as attending the opening of the Liverpool biennale, where she planted sunflowers amid an installation of one of her earliest films, Happiness (1965). Earlier this year, she toured America, giving speeches at Harvard and attending the Oscars, at which her latest film, Faces Places, about a journey through the French countryside with the photographer JR, was nominated for an award – making her the oldest person ever to be up for an Oscar. And she documented it all, joyously, on that most modern of things – Instagram. I suggest you follow her, on social media, and through watching her films.
5 Agnès Varda Films to Watch Now
Cléo From 5 to 7. Shot in real time, the film follows a young singer, Florence ‘Cléo' Victoire, in the suspended hour-and-a-half before she discovers the results of a cancer diagnosis.
The Beaches of Agnès. An autobiographical performative documentary set in her home, in which she reflects, at a remove, on the meaning of her life, and the presence of the loved ones she has outlived.
The Gleaners and I. A contemplative, non-judgemental and unsentimental study of the French underclass.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. A raucous study of female companionship which subtextually explores issues around reproductive rights, released when abortion was still illegal in France.
Faces Places. Soon to be released in UK cinemas, Varda journeys through modern-day France with the photographer JR, creating public portraiture exhibitions in the towns and villages they visit. The film was nominated for an Oscar, making Varda the oldest nominee in the awards' history.