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Agnès Varda, Celebrated French New Wave Filmmaker, Is Dead at 90

Agnès Varda.

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Agnès Varda, whose films, photographs, and installations tenderly follow disadvantaged people as they take control of their lives in the midst of oppressive forces, has died at the age of 90, according to Variety. The cause of her death was cancer.

Varda’s impact on filmmaking today is immense and far-reaching. Though most famous for her films associated with the French New Wave movement during the 1960s, her influence extends far beyond the era.

Varda’s films take a vested interest in the aspects of life that can seem minor or inconsequential, and expand on such moments and ideas until they feel epically important. Her most famous work, Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962), follows a young Parisian woman who, as she awaits the results of a biopsy, begins to think she might have cancer. The film follows Cléo in real time, and it becomes an exploration of time—its power and its consequences—and mortality.

But Varda’s filmography is multifarious, irreducible to a single set of interests. Her subjects over the years have ranged from abortion rights for French women to political activism by the Black Power movement, from class alienation to her marriage to the director Jacques Demy, from potatoes to cats.

JR and Agnès Varda.

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Her late-career essay films, which blend together a wide variety of subjects and draw out unseen connections among them, have earned her the most acclaim. Documentaries such as The Beaches of Agnès (2008) and The Gleaners and I (2000) offer freeform inquiries into Varda’s own relationship to filmmaking, with meditations on the nature of still and moving images, digressions about French history, musings on the work of her male French New Wave colleagues, and homages to famous artworks, with segments about workers’ and women’s rights thrown in.

“I have been a photographer, then I turned into a filmmaker, then I turned into a visual artist,” Varda told ARTnews in 2017. Faces Places (2017), her final film released during her lifetime, focuses explicitly on the role artworks play in our daily lives. In it, Varda follows artist JR, who co-directed the film, as he travels around France, making his signature black-and-white portraits of people by printing them at large formats, and then wheat-pasting them in public spaces. By its end, the film becomes a documentary about Varda’s own vision—she is losing her sight, and she must receive injections to see clearly. “I don’t see you very well, but I see you,” she tells JR toward the end, removing her sunglasses. As she does this, the frame goes blurry. The film earned Varda a nomination for the Oscar for Best Documentary, making her the oldest person to be nominated for the award.

Varda’s final work, Varda par Agnès, is now screening at film festivals around the world, and has not yet been publicly released.

[Read a profile of Agnès Varda from 2017.]

A less-often-recognized aspect of Varda’s oeuvre is her visual art. Though the art world didn’t fully take notice until 2003, when her work appeared at the Venice Biennale, Varda had been steadily making art alongside her films for decades, having begun her career as a photographer during the 1960s. She started out making black-and-white pictures in the mode of French documentary photography from the first half of the century, with her images defined by sharp diagonal compositions.

Agnès Varda, Bord de Mer, 2009, digital HD projection, Blu-ray aspect 16:9 color/sound video projection, sand.©AGNÈS VARDA/COURTESY BLUM & POE, LOS ANGELES, NEW YORK, AND TOKYO/GENEVIEVE HANSON

Agnès Varda, Bord de Mer, 2009, digital HD projection, Blu-ray aspect 16:9 color/sound video projection, sand.

©AGNÈS VARDA/COURTESY BLUM & POE, LOS ANGELES, NEW YORK, AND TOKYO/GENEVIEVE HANSON

Her body of art, which included sculptures constructed from film strips and elaborate video installations, has since appeared at a variety of venues. These works often expand on themes in her films—ones she felt were underdeveloped or otherwise impossible to express with just one screen in one room—and sometimes incorporate unusual materials, and even costumes.

She showed up at the Venice Biennale dressed as a potato for her installation Potatutopia—an outgrowth of her 2000 film The Gleaners and I, which features a sequence about a heart-shaped potato. And Bord de Mer—a 2009 video installation in which footage of an ocean appears above a photograph of a beach and then, below that, a mound of sand—can be considered a real-world equivalent of 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès. In 2013, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art gave Varda her solo show in the United States.

Varda was born in 1928 in Ixelles, Belgium. She went to college for literature and psychology, and decided shortly afterward that she would become a curator. She then studied art history at the École du Louvre, but dropped out shortly afterward to become a photographer. By the end of the 1950s, she had committed herself to filmmaking, and completed her first film, La Pointe Courte, in 1955.

During the ’60s, Varda became involved with the French New Wave, which had diverged into two groups—the Cahiers du Cinéma group and the Left Bank group. Varda fell in with the Left Bank filmmakers, among them Chris Marker and Demy, who opted for a style that was more free-form and less intellectually bound, though no less accomplished, than that of their Cahiers colleagues.

That decade—and the rest of her career—saw Varda exploring the relationship between pictures and people, asking how we relate to images, and exploring how we can seem to need them so badly. “Images are so important in my life and in everybody’s life,” she told ARTnews in 2017. “Imagination nourishes our look at an image. One picture doesn’t exist if no one looks at it.”

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