HOW AGNÈS VARDA SHOWED ME HOW TO LIVE
On Friday, March 29, 2019, French New Wave filmmaker and pioneer Agnès Varda passed away at the age of 90. To pay tribute, we asked our founder Tia Elisabeth Glista to share the impact, personal resonance, and everlasting legacy of Ms. Varda's life and works.
If I had met Agnès Varda, she barely would have come up to my shoulder when standing next to me. She would have teased me about my broken French, and then recited a litany of questions, wanting to know about my family and my history and my hopes and dreams, and then she would ask to take my picture, and I would have had to bend my knees to meet her at her height. She was a famously tiny woman, but her spirit was giant, looming over more than six decades of work that can only be described as singular, from La Pointe Courte, the 1955 film that heralded the French New Wave, to last year’s Faces Places, a documentary that earned her her first Academy Award nomination at the age of 90. There are certain people who seem to transcend time and space, so that, like gods, we assume they will live forever. On 29 March, Agnès died from breast cancer, surrounded by friends and family in the pink building she lived and worked at for sixty years, on Rue Daguerre, in Paris. Her death feels like a gaping cavity in the hearts of those who knew and admired her – she was a feminist icon, a filmmaking pioneer, and a model of the life I often aspired to emulate.
I first stumbled into Agnès’ cinematic universe when I was thirteen; I was precocious, ambitious, and searching for my own relationship to feminism. I wanted to be a director too, and so I had chosen to write about the Cannes Film Festival for a school assignment. I discovered the festival’s historic exclusion of female filmmakers, and in doing so, came across a statement from Agnés, who had been nominated for the Palme d’Or in 1962. Who was this woman, who had been the lonely ambassador for feminism in a male- dominated field, whom I had never heard of? Agnès seemed more like a warrior to me than a director, clearing the thicket for the women who have followed her with a machete
sharpened by wit, originality, and a willingness to wade waist-deep in stories that nobody else would. She documented foragers in rural France, covered the Black Panthers and the Cuban Revolution, and even made a folk rock musical about abortion rights. But it wasn’t just her body of work that made Agnès such a profoundly important figure - it was her unyielding sense of self and pursuit of originality; through Agnès, I did not only learn how one ought to be an artist, but how one ought to live.
It seems that everyone with a passing interest in film or art has some reason why Agnès was important to them. As A.O. Scott wrote for The New York Times, what makes her – often autobiographical – films “so moving is that they create a bond between director and viewer that feels very much like friendship.” This is why, perhaps, people so often tend to write and speak about her simply as Agnès, as if we are all on a first name basis with the woman who pioneered modern cinema. Watching The Gleaners and I, as she presses the digital camera to her hands and traces them with the lens, un-self-consciously mapping the folds of her skin and its spotted crevices, I felt that she trusted me with the intimate consciousness of aging. I had watched her oeuvre evolve over almost six decades, and now she was showing how her body had changed too – how it had softened and how that might have frightened her, or at times, delighted her. To witness her films was also to witness her life, which she willingly let her audience into, and took pleasure in sharing with them.
This was not an artistic choice – it was who she was. It has been an open secret for years that if you went to Rue Daguerre, and you knocked on the little rainbow door at the pink house, Agnès might answer and let you in for a visit. The sense of friendship she extended in her films was not a suggestion, but a real possibility. In her life, this made her a symbol of kindness and hope; in her death, it stings. Last spring, I emailed her office to see if I could stop in while I was in Paris; though they kindly told me that she would be busy
working on a new film, I wish I had gone and knocked on the door anyways. I had planned to make up for it though, and was pinching pennies for another trip to Paris this summer, applying for research grants to study her work and again, to try and visit her. Today, the curb in front of the rainbow door is lined with flowers; the house is a mausoleum.
The road is also lined with heart-shaped potatoes. Agnès was the patron saint of the potato; she found them in the fields when she was gleaning and let them grow old, then photographed the wrinkly heart shapes with trees crawling out of them, and showed them in galleries, appearing herself in a full potato costume. “It’s the way you look at things that make them beautiful,” she explained. She unearthed beauty where others saw none – in the humble potato, and even in despair. There is a 2017 interview that I found myself instinctively reaching for in the wake of her death; she is asked what happiness is to her, and without missing a beat, replies: "[Happiness] is what I had at lunch. Watermelon and parma ham. The mix of salt and sweet, I really like [...] The mix of sadness and joy, what is always inside us, melancholy and energy, constantly being together all the time... I think that is happiness." On April 2, hundreds gathered at Montparnasse Cemetery for her funeral, which featured a rock concert as she was laid to rest. She lived, with passion, in this helix of the bittersweet – as I think that maybe we all do, but she painted hers in bright colours, and allowed herself to be in love with all of the knotty, messiness of it all.
When Joan Owens, a reporter for the LA Times, profiled Agnès in 1978, she wrote that the director seemed “at ease in her own contradictions.” Her home was a hybrid of production office and nursery, and she would go between fixing her son’s toys to cutting a reel of film, papering over the idea that there might ever have been a distinction between work and domesticity. In her films, Agnès leaned into the contradiction as well, collapsing the boundaries between genres. She blurred documentary and fiction in Lions, Love (...and
Lies) and Documenteur, and the elaborate portraits that she staged in works like Jane B. par Agnès V. disrupt the boundary between visual art and cinema, plunging the audience into re-stagings of classic paintings (Agnès first studied art history in Paris, before becoming a photographer). Her curiosity taught me to prune back my own inhibitions so that I might see what others miss, or might find my own creative grammar, un-clotted by convention. Agnès had only seen ten films by the time that she made her first, but she simply said, “I used my imagination and took the plunge.” The limitations that we treat as pathological – in art and in life – did not exist for her; she imagined what she wanted, and then made it come to life.
In the days that have followed Agnès’ death, it seems as if I am choking on tears whenever I try to speak. I wept in the bathroom at school, on my apartment floor, on Avenue B, East Ninth Street, in my kitchen, in the East River Park, and in the office where I work. There are moments when I think that my tears have been exhausted, but my devastation spreads itself out, miles-long, contaminating every object with her hopeful rainbow outline: I am reminded of her by my roommate’s yellow tea kettle, the dried lavender hanging in my bathroom, and a bushel of asparagus that I wash for dinner (there is something very French – and also, suddenly, cinematic – about asparagus, isn’t there?)
When I went home to visit my parents in Toronto this month, I showed them Faces Places. Agnès’ penultimate feature was a collaboration with the French artist JR, whose photographic-trompe-d’loeil-pasting projects have earned him fame around the world. The unlikely duo travelled around the countryside in France, visiting villages and people from Agnès’ history, listening to their stories, and then capturing their faces in giant works of art. In one scene, Agnès takes JR to visit the gravesite of Henri and Martine Cartier-Bresson, at a tiny cemetery in Côte-d’Azur, overtaken by weeds and wildflowers. She sprinkles pebbles on their headstones and JR asks, “Are you afraid of death?” Agnès takes out her camera and photographs the overgrown plot from behind a low tree. “I don’t think I’m afraid,” she says. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“Because that’ll be that.”
Click. She takes the photograph and walks away.
Agnès leaves behind a tapestry of humour and sadness, a compote of fact and fiction, with stirring meditations on life dancing under artfully-imagined surfaces. Her vulnerability was so effortless, and so radical, that it might show us not only how to make great art, but how to be with one another - unafraid of revealing our inner selves, and non- judging of those who show themselves to us. Starved for a friend who would meet me, unreservedly, where I was, Agnès made me feel seen. She trusted the viewers of her films with the inner-workings of her mind, but more importantly, I trusted her; I believed – and still do – that she had answers to questions the rest of us haven’t thought to ask, and that she lived more fully, saw more deeply, and shared more generously than seemed possible for one little person.
Agnès is gone, but watching her films conjures the same effervescent spirit that pulses with a passion for life. I keep playing over the end of her 1977 drama One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, a feminist manifesto for reproductive autonomy. The conclusion is an epilogue of sorts, wherein Agnès casts her real daughter Rosalie as the child of her protagonist, who has taken the feminist cause into her own hands. Rosalie is the film’s dedication, but its invocation of the next generation goes beyond her: this is Agnès passing along the torch – or the banner, the paintbrush, the camera, the wisdom – to all of us.