Death, the glorious filmmaker Agnes Varda once told an interviewer, did not scare her. She looked forward to it, in fact, “because then that will be that!”
And now, that is that. In her Paris home Varda died Thursday, at 90, from complications caused by breast cancer. She was surrounded by family and friends, according to a statement describing the Brussels-born multimedia artist, who first found success with photography, as a “joyful feminist” and a “passionate artist.”
Few filmmakers anywhere enjoyed a heartier, more joyful third act than Varda. In 2017 she was awarded an honorary Academy Award — gallingly, the first to be given to a female director.
At the 2018 Oscars her exuberant road-tripping documentary “Faces Places,” chronicling a roving photography project she embarked upon with friend and photographer JR, received a nomination, making Varda the oldest-ever nominee for any competitive Academy Award.
In that film, Varda tells her cohort she hates working with an itinerary. “Chance, she says, “has always been my best assistant.” For decades, across various media, Varda found new and revealing ways to allow chance to flower.
Agnès Varda’s unique cinematic vision since the 1950s has earned her a loyal following of enthusiastic cinephiles around the world.
Her final documentary essay, “Varda by Agnès,” premiered in February at the Berlin Film Festival, where she received the honorary Berlinale Camera award.
Varda was probably best known for the disarming “Cleo from 5 to 7” (1962), a highlight of a career too often overshadowed by the French New Wave patriarchy as represented by Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and others. For years she was labeled “the mother of the French New Wave,” a label that managed to pay tribute to her while marginalizing her talent and opportunities. (She had a long, complicated, artistically fruitful marriage to director Jacques Demy, best known for “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”)
Born to a Greek father and French mother in Belgium, her family relocated to France during World War II, near the sea. Her feature filmmaking debut came in 1955 with “La Pointe Courte,” done with a largely non-professional cast. It preceded the French New Wave as we know it by several years. A Variety review served as a harbinger of the sort of patronizing sexism Varda had to work around her entire career, sniffing that “the main aspect of this film is that it was made for $20,000 by a 25-year-old girl.”
I met Varda in 2015, on a sunny day at the University of Chicago Logan Center for the Arts patio. On her final visit to Chicago, she was the subject of a weeklong retrospective showcasing her work as filmmaker, photographer and visual artist.
We talked about “Cleo from 5 to 7,” a film made seemingly in real time, dealing with a Paris model waiting to hear about a potentially life-threatening biopsy result. The film itself ran about 30 minutes shorter than the title suggested, but the style was nonetheless real-seeming, spontaneous — Varda’s poetic approximation of reality.
“The language of cinema is the ellipsis,” she told me. “You know? I touch my luggage, and suddenly (in the next shot) I’m in a train. I take my keys, then I’m home. But (with ‘Cleo’) I was dealing with continuous time and distance in a new way. We didn’t cheat with the distance, the trajectory. People still study that film.”
We talked about one of the retrospective’s video installations, “The People on the Terrace,” inspired by a photograph Varda made 51 years earlier, depicting a random group of people. Her film opened up that photo to imagine a scenario and a set of relationships among those people.
She said: “I’m most interested in the moment somebody goes out of the frame. Where do they go? Images are so important to me. I love them. And I question them, all the time.”
Varda and Demy took a chance on Hollywood, and Hollywood did not return the favor. Both directors had an eye for the next big thing: When Harrison Ford was not known by anyone, in the late 1960s, they spotted his potential (studio bosses said he had none). As a Guardian interview noted, Varda got to know Jim Morrison of the Doors. She cast him as an extra in her film “Lions Love.”
She and five other people attended Morrison’s funeral in 1971.
The director loved bright splashes of color, in her hair, her wardrobe and her life. Color, she told me, served as her “vitamins.” She was diminutive of stature, but as she once told an interviewer: “I was always small. But only physically.”
Her work came out of what was known as the Left Bank movement, as did the films of Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras and a few others. She experimented to the end. “I want to choose my life,” a girl says in “Les 3 Boutons,” one of her short films. Across seven decades of inquisitive, searching work, Varda asserted her place, value and choices, and how she saw life all around her.