Last Friday, we lost Agnès Varda, one of the great artistic minds of the modern age. Best known for her contributions to the French New Wave in films like “Cleo from 5 to 7” and “Le Bonheur,” Varda contributed a uniquely female perspective to a medium that to this day continues to be largely dominated by men. Her breaking of the glass ceiling for women in film was not her sole accomplishment: Varda’s wholly distinctive way of filming human beings as honestly and lovingly as possible sets her apart as not only an important woman director, but one of the greatest directors of our time.
My first encounter with Varda was through the 2017 documentary, “Faces Places,” in which Varda and fellow artist JR travel across the French countryside and plaster images of the people they meet onto structures around their towns. I was instantly charmed, not only by the film’s premise but by Varda’s presence. Simultaneously intelligent and goofy, Varda seemed to be fascinated with everything she saw and everyone she met. Her unequivocal passion for being alive was contagious. Despite her advanced age by the time “Faces Places” was filmed, Varda maintained a childlike wonder of the world and its inhabitants in the best possible way.
When I first saw Varda’s most renowned directorial effort, “Cleo from 5 to 7,” I could see her fascination for people even more clearly. The film follows Cleo, a young, beautiful singer waiting to hear back from her doctor for what could potentially be a cancer diagnosis. It takes place in real time, tracking Cleo over the course of an hour and a half or so as she traverses Parisian streets, all while she inwardly contemplates the very real possibility of death.
We learn that Cleo, despite her exterior beauty, is fundamentally fraught. She’s narcissistic, image-obsessed and selfish — a collection of qualities that are inherently unlikeable. Varda’s photography focuses on the woman’s face. It’s not Cleo’s beauty, but something in her eyes, in her expression that tells us that there’s more to her. The several long shots of Cleo’s face give us a glimpse into the depths of her inner world, of the feelings she’s experiencing as she comes face-to-face with death. Varda saw these depths in Cleo and used the film to help us see them too.
It’s difficult to think of a world without Agnès Varda. Writing about her in the past tense is distressing. However, it’s important to remember that, through her immeasurable impact on cinema, through those inspired to create by Varda, we will never truly lose her. It’s impossible to think about this new wave of female directors (Greta Gerwig, Sofia Coppola, among others) without thinking about Varda’s role in making it possible for them. It’s impossible to think about the French New Wave without thinking about her. It’s impossible to think about cinema without thinking about her.
As a tribute to Varda, JR attached several colorful balloons to a cardboard cutout of her image and let her float into the sky. We don’t know where she’s going, but we can only hope it’s somewhere more deserving of her than here.