For all the aesthetic, intellectual and political barriers the French New Wave more or less disregarded, when it came to gender, they were still something of a boys club. Pretty much everything was a boys club in the 1950s of course, but being symbolized mainly by Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, the brash “new young Turks” who got banned from festivals and carried on sometimes tumultuous affairs with their beautiful leading ladies, it carries with it at least a hint of rock star chauvinism. With one shining exception that is: the brilliant, mercurial presence of Agnès Varda, whose personal approach and artist’s eye for composition led to some of the most seminal films of the Nouvelle Vague, and afterwards, to an eclectic, busy career, one which continues to this day.
Born Arlette Varda in Belgium in 1928, Varda and her family fled the Nazi invasion of 1940, ending up in the South of France, where she spent her adolescence before moving on to Paris, and study at the Louvre. Gravitating toward photography, and falling in with Paris’ artistic elite, she gave her first solo gallery show (well, not so much a gallery show, it was in her house) in 1954, after which she travelled to China and Cuba, both emerging international players at the time, as a photojournalist, even meeting Fidel Castro. Though she later recalled not havingseen very many movies in her youth, she wanted to try her hand at making them, and, without any training or experience, made and released her first feature, La Pointe Courte, in 1955.
A stylistic precursor to the kind of films that would soon be earning the Cahiers du cinema crowd headlines and international notoriety, the film earned her the nickname “the Grandmother of the New Wave” (typical, why not just “mother”, she’s only two years older than Godard). Though her work fell under the umbrella of the nouvelle vague, she was technically part of a sub-group referred to as the “left bank” filmmakers, which shared a more plastic arts background and more experimental leanings, as opposed to the “right bank” crowd of Truffaut and company, who were strictly film-obsessed from the very beginning and also more comfortable with the commercial world of the cinema. The distinction is mostly academic, especially nowadays, but it explains in part why she doesn’t get as much press.
She remained active throughout the era, but perhaps her best remembered moment is 1962’s Cleo from 5 to 7, and indeed the film still stands out as one of the best of the New Wave years, period. As the title would suggest, the film unfolds almost in real time, isolating two hours (well, more like an hour and a half) in the life of Cleo, a budding pop star who’s anxiously awaiting test results from her doctor which, she fears, will confirm that she has cancer. That makes it sound harrowing or depressing, but while it is about someone staring into the abyss of death, the movie’s not a downer at all, quite the opposite in fact; it’s an ebullient mixture of humor, heartfelt emotion and pure visual style.
Proof of the latter comes in the first few moments, with one of the most subtly memorable opening scenes in film, a masterpiece of art direction and title design during which a Tarot card reader basically explains everything that’s going to happen (though you never know if her most dire prediction is right or wrong). It still feels so modern, almost as if Wes Anderson and others might have stolen their whole aesthetic from this one short scene, the only part of the film that’s in color. And that’s just the beginning of the many memorable little turns that pop up from time to time throughout Cleo from 5 to 7, among them a cameo from New Wave power couple Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina that’s also an affectionate homage to silent cinema.
Even after leaving an indelible mark on one of the most influential and important film movements ever, Varda continued to follow her own personal muse, which over the years has led her just about everywhere. She’s directed around 50 films, consisting of everything from experimental shorts to dramatic features to documentaries on topics as diverse as the Black Panthers (Black Panthers, 1968), Parisian people willingly foraging for food in the trash (The Gleaners and I, 2000), even her own life (The Beaches of Agnes, 2008) and, most recently, even a television series. Even with all that, she never gave up photography, started yet another career as a visual artist in 2003 and still prefers to tour with and present her own films. In many ways, she’s more accomplished than her male contemporaries; she was their first, and she’s the only one still at it.