Saturday Night Spotlight #5: Agnès Varda

Born in Belgium to a French mother and a Greek father, writer-director Agnès Varda (b. 1928) is often called the “Mother of the French New Wave” due to her prominence during that cinematic movement and the fact that she was the only woman director in that group of filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. (Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy, made films at the same time but he leaned more towards colorful musicals than black-and-white realism.) During a career lasting six decades, Agnès Varda has gained international acclaim for her explorations of humanity, history and time. In addition to often making films focused on female protagonists, Varda has also made a point of working with women film editors, cinematographers, camera operators, assistant directors, composers, costume designers and makeup artists, besides being an editor and cinematographer herself.

La Pointe Courte (1955) – Varda’s debut feature film precedes the New Wave by two or three years but its study of the bond between a husband (Philippe Noiret) and wife (Silvia Monfort) is an antecedent to the examinations of relationships in films by Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer. Another connection to the New Wave: Alain Resnais, soon to be a renowned director himself, served as La Pointe Courte’s editor.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) – Varda’s most well-known fiction film tells the story of a popular young singer (played by Corinne Marchand) who is told by her doctor that she may possibly have cancer. From 5:00 to 7:00 pm, Cléo spends those two hours with friends and acquaintances, all the while wondering and worrying about her prognosis. Michel Legrand (pictured above left), the composer who wrote the music for Cléo and who famously worked with Jacques Demy on the scores and songs for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) and Donkey Skin (1970), also acts in Cléo as (what else?) a pianist and composer. Other icons of French film – actor Jean-Claude Brialy, actor/singer Eddie Constantine, actress Danièle Delorme, actor Sami Frey, director Jean-Luc Godard, actress Anna Karina, actor/director Yves Robert – show up in cameo appearances.

Vagabond (1985) – The story of a homeless woman (portrayed by a young Sandrine Bonnaire) is told in reverse, starting with her death and working backward to show her life through flashbacks and with the use of an interviewer’s narrating voice. The style of the film is a fusion of documentary and drama, blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction.

The Beaches of Agnès (2008) – Varda has been making documentaries for years, including Daguerréotypes (1976), about the lives of French shopkeepers, Mur Murs (1981), about wall murals in Los Angeles, and the series The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002), which focus on the habits of French citizens who gather (or “glean”) potatoes and other harvest crops from farmers’ fields due to a centuries-old law that allows the practice. (Varda also delves into stories of people who glean antiques, garbage and recycled materials.) Beaches explores Varda’s history and memories, including her life with Jacques Demy. The result is an emotional, moving film that blends the past with the present.

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