Agnès Varda received her first Oscar nods in 2018—one was an honorary lifetime achievement award, the other a nomination for her documentary Faces Places, which she made with the artist JR. For many filmmakers, this would have been a cause for celebration. For Varda, it was merely a moment for reflection. “There is nothing to be proud of, but happy,” she told the Associated Press. “Happy because we make films to love. We make films so that you love film.”
Now comes a major opportunity for more to fall in love with Varda’s compassionate films. From December 20 to January 6, Film at Lincoln Center in New York has a complete retrospective of the late filmmaker’s work—and then the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will take the series in February. (Varda’s last film, Varda by Agnès, is also now playing in limited release across the nation.)
With the retrospective series in mind, below is a guide to Varda’s most essential films.
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)
This is quite possibly the Varda film—the one that made her career, and the one that will likely always define her legacy for all the right reasons. In it, Varda follows a Parisian woman as she awaits a diagnosis as to whether or not she has cancer. Time is of the essence for her, and we feel it—the film unfolds in real time, as our protagonist gets closer and closer to finding out her fate. Varda’s playful filmmaking puts forward the idea that time is itself essential to cinema, if not its very defining feature, and she goes on to rely on editorial tricks to make certain scenes feel long or short. It only seems somewhat of a spoiler to say that the film’s title is a misnomer—the runtime is a crisp 90 minutes.
Black Panthers (1968)
Empathy is crucial for documentary filmmaking, and Varda knew this better than most. For Black Panthers, a documentary about the student activist movement that was shot while living with her husband, fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy, in Los Angeles, Varda established an unusual connection with her subjects, allowing them to speak for extended periods of time and observing them with an amount of understanding that was unusual for white filmmakers of the era. And it would only make sense to film the Black Panthers in this way: one of the movement’s key demands was Black self-determination, and Varda’s filmmaking here reflects that, with certain interviews going on for extended periods of time. To make such a film was a political statement in its own right, and when it originally was set to show on French TV in 1968, it never aired—a fact that Varda blamed on the censors’ fears of inciting further student activism.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977)
The radical leftist politics of the French New Wave are typically more closely associated with filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, who made fiery works that were explicitly critical of colonialism, racism, and misogyny. But it would be a mistake to call Varda apolitical. She was one of the Nouvelle Vague directors who worked on Far from Vietnam, an omnibus work about foreign involvement in the Asian country that burns with a rage unparalleled by any other 1960s film about the subject. And in 1971, she became one of 343 French women who signed a document saying that she had had an abortion, even though it was against the law to do so at the time. Varda’s feminist activism formed the inspiration for parts of this tender movie about two women whose close friendship is tested by developments in both of their personal lives. Though criticized at the time of its release (some even alleged that it focused too much on the men in the protagonists’ lives), it’s an exemplary distillation of Varda’s politics, and one of her finest narrative works.
Mur Murs (1981)
During the 1960s, while living with Demy in L.A., Varda initiated a short period in which she made lovely, incisive English-language films about the city and its odd denizens. But her best L.A. film, Mur Murs, actually came after that period. In typical form for Varda, her subject—street art in the city by the likes of Judith F. Baca and Richard Wyatt, and its relationship to the Angelenos around it—could have been twee, if not downright sophomoric. But her compassion for the bizarre characters she finds along the way makes this film one of her most endearing efforts. Though told in a straightforward, almost deceptively simple way, this documentary—one of Varda’s most criminally underseen efforts—broaches powerful questions about images and what they mean for the people who see them.
Typically, Varda’s filmmaking opted for upbeat heroines and quirky narration. It was not, however, blind to the ugly realities of life, and throughout her career, Varda was shrewdly critical of class disparities in her home country. With Vagabond, one of her steeliest efforts, Varda focused on a mysterious homeless woman (played by Sandrine Bonnaire) who walks through the French countryside and, for the most part, is entirely ignored by the people she sees around her. It’s an unusual work for Varda in that the protagonist is somewhat impenetrable—a quality she believed was one of the film’s major successes. “I like the idea that you remain yourself, conscious of who you are,” she told Film Comment in 2015, speaking of Vagabond.
The Gleaners and I (2000)
Having made a box-office bomb with One Hundred and One Nights in 1995, Varda never returned to narrative filmmaking in the last part of her career. Her best late-career effort was The Gleaners and I, an essayistic documentary focused loosely on people who pick through trash. With its manifold subjects—the advent of digital filmmaking, heart-shaped potatoes and why most buyers (unfairly, she argues) don’t want them, and laws about property in France—Varda is able to construct something epic and truly moving about what it means to make movies. Filmmakers, she proposes, are like gleaners—they sort through moving pictures of things that seem banal or unimportant, and they end up finding images that become beloved.
Homage to Zgougou (and Hello to Sabine Mamou), 2002
No writing about Varda is complete without somehow addressing her affection for cats, and this short is an emblematic work in that respect. As usual for Varda, the focus is a woman—in this case, a female cat given to her by a female friend. Over the course of two minutes, Varda gushes over one of her cats, Zgougou, whom she calls “a queen, presenting, domineering.” At one point, Zgougou serenely lounges on top of Varda’s computer, which causes the machine’s fan to overheat—a problem which doesn’t last long because Varda constructs a hood for her computer, and then lets the cat sit atop it. It’s a delight, and it’s unfortunately not playing as part of the retrospective. (It is, however, available on Mubi’s Twitter.)