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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Agnès Varda – Far Out Magazine

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Agnès Varda was one of the most influential and defiant filmmakers to emerge from France in the mid-1950s. Disregarding cinematic convention, Varda made her first film La Pointe Courte in 1954, despite having seen about 20 films in her life. Her desire to make films stemmed from her work as a photographer, and the two mediums continued to interact closely throughout her career. She once stated: “I take photographs, or I make films. Or I put films in the photos or photos in the films.”
Varda employed her friend and fellow Left Bank filmmaker Alain Resnais to edit La Point Courte, whose constant references to other filmmakers that Varda hadn’t heard of inspired her to go “along to the Cinémathèque to find out what he was talking about”. The director then made her next feature in 1962, the seminal French New Wave classic Cleo From 5 to 7. Over the following decades, Varda would create a series of features and shorts, either fiction and documentaries or sometimes an amalgam of both. 
The director consistently advocated for underrepresented groups, once stating her preference for filming “the rebels, the people who fight for their own life.” Short films such as Women Reply: Our Bodies Our Sex and Black Panthers demonstrate Varda’s involvement with feminist and civil rights movements, which she documented sensitively and empathetically. Varda approached her subjects with a proudly feminine gaze, once stating: “I did all that – my photos, my craft, my film, my life – on my terms, my own terms, and not to do it like a man.”  
Varda was unapologetic in her experimental approach to filmmaking, helping to change many people’s perception of cinema’s potential. She demonstrated that you don’t need to have an extensive setup or a highly detailed knowledge of cinematic conventions to create incredible films. The director lept into her movies with passion and bravery, and the results were magnificent. Sadly, Varda passed away in 2019, aged 90. However, her impressive filmography spanning seven decades ensures that she’ll never be forgotten. 
Varda’s pioneering feminist tale Cleo From 5 to 7 was released in 1962, making it an early contribution to the French New Wave movement. We follow Cleo (Corinne Marchand), a self-obsessed singer awaiting the results of a medical test that will reveal whether she has cancer. The film explores themes of existentialism and mortality whilst exploring the perception of women and female identity. Varda also makes many allusions to the Algerian War, with news reports playing over Cleo’s taxi ride and protestors lining the streets as she attempts to get to her next destination. 
Marchand gives a fantastic performance as the blonde and beautiful Cleo, whose preoccupation with her looks (“as long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive) begins to fade as she reckons with her mortality. Cleo From 5 to 7 is a powerful exploration of what it means to be a woman and is just one of many examples of the complex female characters that dominate Varda’s work. 
Many critics misinterpreted the irony of Varda’s film Le Bonheur (‘Happiness’) when it was released in 1965. The picture-perfect movie is one of Varda’s most beautiful and idyllic. Yet, she makes it so to convey artificiality and poke fun at her male character, François, who is happily unfaithful to his wife. Varda’s film posits many questions to its audience about family structures and the true meaning of happiness. 
Le Bonheur was Varda’s third film, cementing her as one of France’s most influential filmmakers. She was the only female director aligned with the French New Wave, and her treatment of female characters and gender politics differed wildly from her contemporaries. Le Bonheur functions like a domestic horror film and truly subverts expectations. Emotional and complex, Varda paints a pastel-coloured vision of terror where the main villain is the patriarchy. 
One Sings, The Other Doesn’t is Varda’s powerful and visually stunning feminist feast, which explores the friendship between two women, Pomme and Suzanne, searching for ownership over their own bodies. The film features several musical numbers written by Varda, undoubtedly influenced by her husband Jacques Demy, the mastermind behind The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The sentiment behind One Sings, The Other Doesn’t still rings true today as women search for bodily autonomy.
Set against the backdrop of the Women’s Movement of 1970s France, Varda is uncompromising in her depiction of women’s rights to abortion. In one scene, the pair attend a protest based on an actual demonstration that happened in France, with Varda getting women to “carry banners in support of ‘the 343’, the prominent women—including Varda—who had signed a manifesto testifying that they had had illegal abortions.” One Sings, The Other Doesn’t is radical and bold – just another example of Varda’s unwavering confidence as a filmmaker. 
As the decades progressed, Varda kept creating innovative films that spotlighted the underrepresented. Vagabond stars Sandrine Bonnaire as Mona, a young homeless woman who wanders around the Languedoc-Roussillon wine country during winter. The film opens with the image of a dead woman lying in a ditch, which prompts an unseen interviewer, voiced by Varda, to ask residents about the identity of the body. From there, the film details how Mona met her untimely fate, depicting her encounters with different locals and her quest to survive. 
Varda’s merging of documentary with fiction – characters often turn to the camera to comment on Mona – makes her story feel realistic, considerably heightening the emotional impact. Bonnaire’s performance is stunning, and she earned a César Award for the role. Vagabond forces audiences to question their responsibility to others, and Varda treats Mona’s story delicately – aided by her time researching homelessness by meeting with vagrants, some of whom appear in the film. 
With a new millennium came Varda’s foray into new technology – a handheld digital camera. Inspired by the painting The Gleaners By Jean-François Millet, Varda travelled around France to interview various gleaners who do so for necessary or artistic means. Varda plays around with the meaning of gleaning and involves herself in the documentary, showcasing her wrinkled hands and greying hair and comparing the lines of her skin to those on the discarded potatoes. 
The Gleaners and I is one of Varda’s most impressive documentaries because of its warm spirit. She eloquently interviews those who eat from bins and live out of caravans, as well as arrogant vineyard owners who ban gleaning on their property. Varda mixes humour with profound explorations of class and poverty, art, mortality, consumption, capitalism and gender. She even revisited some of her subjects in a follow-up documentary, The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later. 
Varda was not one to shy away from mortality, and in celebration of her 80th birthday, the director made an autobiographical film revisiting key moments from her personal life and career. Although she believed the film to possibly be her last, she followed it with Faces Places in 2017 and Varda by Agnès in 2019. However, The Beaches of Agnès is arguably Varda’s best personal piece – both gloriously fun and emotionally poignant. “I am alive, and I remember,” she declares at the end of the film. 
The film mixes mediums in typical Varda style, such as still images and bricolage, bringing together images of important people, locations and items from her life. She explores her journey of becoming a filmmaker, her time living in Sète, her relationship with Demy, shooting films in LA and more. The film will undoubtedly pique the interest of Varda fans, old and new. 
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