The Indefatigable Spirit of Agnès Varda

The beloved pioneer of French New Wave cinema kept making evocative and challenging films up until her death at age 90.

Vianney Le Caer / Invision / AP

Agnès Varda was a peerless giant of French cinema. Her diminutive stature and impish personality could belie the breadth of her influence, but there’s no ignoring the sheer artistry of the movies she made over the past six decades, spanning entire movements in film history that she helped pioneer. Varda died Thursday night at the age of 90 after a short battle with cancer; just this year, she had premiered a new work at the Berlin International Film Festival. A woman who began her directing career when the idea of women directing was still practically unheard of, Varda made challenging art through every phase of her life.

“I am still alive; I am still curious. I should not be treated like an old piece of rotting flesh!” she said last year, remarking on a career resurgence of sorts that came with her documentary Faces Places, which snagged her an Oscar nod in 2018 (she was the oldest person ever nominated). Varda first emerged in 1955 with the film La Pointe Courte, a slice-of-life drama about an unhappy couple working in a small French fishing town and reconsidering their relationship. It’s widely considered to be the first entry in the French New Wave, a cinematic movement that upended the medium—even though the movie was released years before the term was invented.

Varda favored a documentary-like style for her fiction films. She often used nonprofessional actors, evocative still images (thanks to her origins as a photographer), and plots that feel a little aimless before building to something more pointed or devastating. Her second feature, 1962’s Cléo From 5 to 7, is a 90-minute jaunt following a mundane day in the life of a woman awaiting pivotal news from a doctor. It’s told practically in real time, following her from café to café as she chats with friends, ponders her fate, and ignores the darker political news spilling out of the radio. It’s a masterpiece of existentialism that creeps up on the viewer, matching Varda’s realistic style with her intellectual heft.

Cléo From 5 to 7 was part of the “Left Bank” movement in French cinema, an offshoot of the New Wave that was more politically driven. Unlike the movie-obsessed Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol, Varda and her contemporaries (including Jacques Demy, Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker) were less referential and more focused on the experimental limits of cinema. Varda saw herself as merging the literary arts and cinema, calling her approach “cinécriture,” or “writing on film,” combining her backgrounds as a writer and photographer.

Through the decades, Varda sometimes struggled to attract the same attention as some of the New Wave’s biggest names, but she worked consistently, producing gems such as Le Bonheur (1965); One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977); and Vagabond (1985), a collaboration with the actor Sandrine Bonnaire that is one of the director’s most overtly feminist works. Varda’s interest in documentary filmmaking persisted. In the 1960s, she produced two short works on the arrest of Huey P. Newton (Black Panthers and Huey), and arguably her finest achievement is the free-form 2000 documentary feature The Gleaners and I, in which Varda herself plays a prominent role.

Faces Places arrived nine years after Varda’s 2008 documentary, The Beaches of Agnès, which seemed like it could have been the director’s final, elegiac work. But she kept on filming through her 80s, and the success of Faces Places likely opened her oeuvre up to another, younger generation. She was given an honorary Academy Award in 2018, the same year she was nominated for Faces Places. But rather than taking that honor as her cue to retire, she set to work on Varda by Agnès, which premiered at Berlin in 2019 and will now stand as her actual cinematic farewell.

“I was out of the world of cinema and I didn’t know anybody around and I don’t even see film. So out of the blue, I invented the film,” Varda said in a 2017 interview, reflecting on the creation of La Pointe Courte. “The New Wave is everywhere now, thank God. In every country, new filmmakers have the field. … We need people who don’t make film as a business. That’s what we have in common cause—we have tried to achieve something.”