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What the Oscars Can Learn From Agnès Varda

The fact that Varda was ahead of her time was a credit to her, that she remains so is a knock on us with the 2020 Oscars’ best director line-up being a boy’s club’s wet dream.

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Soleil Nathwani Feb 09, 2020

French filmmaker Agnès Varda in a still from ‘VARDA BY AGNÈS’ (2019)

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“Between weight and lightness, I chose lightness, I feel I’m dancing the dance of cinema” – Agnès Varda

Every year the Oscars come and go leaving in their wake some fireworks, some debris and some more of the same. In recent years, there have been history bending highlights such as Frances McDormand’s insistence on gender parity and Moonlight’s many firsts for a film with an all-Black cast. Mostly however, the ceremony designed to fête the greatest talent within cinema remains much of the same, confined by a governing body now nine thousand members strong and edging towards parity, but still stuck in the dated architecture of being 84% white and 68% male. This year’s crop of all male director nominees, despite exciting work by women, made even this dismal ratio look appealing. If systemic change feels like a slog, French filmmaker and fairy godmother of cinema, Agnès Varda, is both rebuke and hope. She passed last year, gifting us her final film at the age of ninety and will get a send-off in-memoriam at the Oscars, leaving behind a body of work that shows us what challenging convention really looks like. A look back at Varda is a stark reminder of the imperative to accelerate change. Her legacy of films are harbingers of hope for women directors and lessons in transformation for an industry that has more to do to rise to support them. 

Varda announced herself to the hallowed halls of French Cinema well before they were ready for her. Born in Brussels in 1928, she emigrated with her family to France. She grew to be inseparable from her camera and infinitely curious till her death. Her first film, La Pointe Courte, was made on a shoestring budget and landed like a revelation. Varda, who had spent much of adolescence growing up in a fishing village, entered the entirely different world of Paris to study philosophy and art at the Sorbonne. She approached everything with the eyes of someone discovering it for the first time. Working as a photographer, she had seen barely any cinema before embarking on her first movie. It was a beautifully simple story that contained endless new possibilities for cinema. By trusting her voice, Agnès Varda made something singular and by being blind to process, she reinvented it. Contemporaries and critics alike were shocked that such visionary ideas could come from a ‘young girl of twenty-five’. 

The 1954 film, shot in the coastal village of Sète where Agnès Varda grew up, combined non actors who played out the drama going on in the village with real actors who overlaid a second narrative of a couple debating their relationship. As such, La Pointe Courte was the precursor to the autobiographical influences, neorealism and technical prowess that defined the French New Wave. In a trailblazing group of directors that came to include Goddard and Truffaut, a young Varda was in many ways the source. In an Oscar year that highlights stories of male legacy as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino do to great effect with The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it’s worth remembering that Varda built one when she had barely begun and continued to influence innumerable artists.  

Despite knowing immediately that making movies was all she wanted to do, it would be another seven years before Agnès Varda made her second feature. Even though it anticipated all of them, La Pointe Courte was obliterated by the late 1950s tidal wave of French New Wave jewels – Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins, The 400 Blows, Hiroshima mon Amour and Breathless. Elegantly showing the finger to what were undoubtedly the challenges of finding funding as a female director, Varda’s second film Cléo from 5 to 7, was told from the vantage point of one woman’s internal monologue. The 1962 film follows young singer Cléo Victoire as if in real time as she experiences highs and lows in the two hour wait for the results of a possible cancer diagnosis. Her inner voice speaks directly to us as she does the banal – visiting a psychic, shopping for a hat, welcoming her pianist home and strolling Paris. Varda’s utterly engrossing Cléo is proof that the female gaze is enthralling and that the female psyche is as worthy of screen time as the most heroic or villainous man. It’s no surprise that decades on, Greta Gerwig, only the fifth woman ever to be nominated for a best director Oscar for her debut Ladybird, the widely loved film with a pink-haired, teenage-girl protagonist at its center, counts Varda amongst the filmmakers who shaped her. 

Varda’s championing of the female voice was revolutionary then and remains so, grounded in a post-feminist ethos of refusing to be beholden to judgement, whether male or female. She made a point of saying that she saw herself not as a female filmmaker rather ‘as a radical filmmaker who was a woman’. Her 1965 film Le Bonheur toyed with form, exploring a man’s infidelity to his wife amidst an idyllic setting designed to reflect lush Renaissance paintings. The serenity of the locations doubled as a way to tell the audience that nothing is quite what it appears to be. It was Varda’s way of questioning the myth of family and a happy-ever-after even as she was recently married to fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy. Varda’s provocations received a backlash. Many women were shocked that she could make such a film but the inherent hypocrisy in the judgement only emboldened Varda. Her 1977 film, One Sings the Other Doesn’t, told a story of female friendship by depicting two women grappling with abortion, single motherhood and living on their own terms at a time when even the women’s movement wasn’t quite there. In a point of pride in her own choices, Varda dedicated the film to the daughter she had had before meeting and marrying Demy. 

As consistent as Varda was about making films that told female stories, she was uncompromising about how she made them. She acknowledged over the years how difficult it was for her to make money and how her films, often well ahead of their time or well left of center, weren’t bankable but she insisted on art and ideas over commerce. When Hollywood came calling (as Columbia pictures had for her husband Jacques after the success of his The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), she gave up one deal because she slapped a producer for pinching her cheek and refused another because the studio denied her final cut. She knew the importance of control even if she ceded opportunity, making a distinction in the choice to ‘make films’ over ‘having a career’, the implication being that a conventionally successful career demanded too many compromises as an artist, especially a female one. 

Varda set the example at a time of far fewer choices and public support for women. Women creators are fast realizing that taking control is the only fundamental way to shift the hierarchy. Reese Witherspoon is applauded for taking back the reins and reincarnating herself as a powerhouse producer and actor-director-producer Angelina Jolie is an emblem of a new era for multi-hyphenate creators. Even though Hollywood is making up for its shortsightedness — Angelina Jolie handed Varda her own honorary Oscar decades later — in the movie industry, the economics of womanhood in front of and behind the camera is still too threatening for the gatekeepers. Last year, director Lorene Scarfaria’s commendable effort Hustlers, starring Jennifer Lopez, addressed the very economics of womanhood in a true story of a group of female strippers and was mostly sidelined during awards season. Gerwig’s sophomore feature, a refreshing adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women with an all-star cast, pointedly doubled as an origins story for an author who demanded control of her own work and ironically didn’t cut it for an Oscars’ best director line-up that is a boys’ club’s wet dream. Questioning the power structure is still an uphill battle. 

When many women might have thrown in the towel, Varda did the opposite. She returned to France after her second Hollywood sojourn in the 1980s and her films went from presenting progressive characters to highlighting subversive ones in stories that had never been explored so imaginatively on screen. Her 1985 film Vagabond told the story of a drifter in a role that won French actress Sandrine Bonnaire a César (France’s highest acting award) when she was only 18. The film depicted a young girl, Mona, as she traveled across the landscape finding shelter in exchange for work, sex or companionship, in the days before her death. The film’s use of thirteen long reverse traveling shots to echo Mona’s journey and descent were a technical feat. Varda was careful to preserve social relevance without producing a piece of poverty porn. Mona, uses anger and wit as a shield, alternately eliciting our repulsion and our sympathy. She is person, not project for Varda and while we might have scant idea of who Mona really is, Varda brings us face to face with her spirit. 

Later in the decade, Varda collaborated with the famed British-French model and actor Jane Birkin on two films, reinventing cinema and challenging its tropes yet again. The first, Kung-Fu Master based on a script that Birkin and Varda co-wrote, turned Lolita on its head and told the story of a young mother who falls in love with a fourteen-year old boy who is her daughter’s friend. The second, Jane B. for Agnès V., was an unconventional portrait of Birkin herself that imagines Birkin, aged 40, in roles that she wished she had played. Born of Birkin’s response to an industry that by turns misunderstood her or boxed her in and Varda’s determination that those stereotypes and walls be torn down, the film playfully questioned everything about the movie ecosystem, shifting between Birkin the person and Birkin the characters she wanted, but was unable to inhabit. 

Varda was relentless in imagining women as they wanted to be seen or simply as they were. In Vagabond, Kung-Fu Master and Jane B. for Agnès V., Varda returned to the fusion of acting and reality that she pioneered in La Pointe Courte. In Vagabond, the people Mona meets are mostly real people, not actors. In Kung-Fu Master, Birkin’s own children and parents play themselves while she lives out her scripted fantasy and in Jane B. for Agnès V, the entire film is a riff on the blending of real life and screen. The reality that is inextricably woven into the fabric of Varda’s stories says to us that these women that defy convention are not just celluloid sketches, they exist and they are here to challenge the whore-madonna stereotypes generated by decades of male gaze. 

Even as Varda showed female strength and complexity she appreciated that the desire for love wasn’t a weakness. Love in her own life, whether heartbreak or ecstasy, propelled her forward. In her most personal work, 1981’s Documenteur set in Los Angeles, she examined the grief of a break up that spoke directly to her brief separation from her husband. Later, her most tender films were ones the pair made in the 1990s — Jacquot de Nantes and The World of Jacques Demy — celebrating the life and history of Demy who, once reconciled, remained her partner till his death. Varda knew that applauding herself, even as a woman in a man’s world, didn’t involve rejecting the parts of her that felt most fragile, prettying up the parts that felt ugly or simplifying the complicated.

We are only just coming to a mainstream appreciation of the types of women Varda shone a light on; heroines that are allowed to be soft, strong, complicated, messy, undefinable. Once labeled ‘unconventional’, they are now simply authentic. The British multi-hyphenate Phoebe Waller-Bridge is living proof. She created the highly lauded shows Crashing, Fleabag and Killing Eve because no one else was writing the kind of women in whom she found herself. These shows celebrate women for, amongst other things, having unabashed sex that in one hilarious story line challenges religion by involving the seduction of a priest; and performing high intensity assassinations without shying away from moaning about their periods and their wardrobes. It’s the type of authenticity that Agnès Varda hoped we could reach as she captured women in all their fullness. But as Waller-Bridge embarks on melding TV with a Hollywood directing career, the jury is still out on whether the floodgates of the big screen will truly open to her talent. 

If the Oscars barometer is anything to go by, Waller-Bridge will have her work cut out for her. British filmmaker Joanna Hogg, who has for decades explored radical feminist themes and the interior world of women in her films much like Varda did before her, screened The Souvenir at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The semi-fictionalized version of Hogg’s emotionally tortured relationship with an older man during film school debuted to praise and awards, yet the industry has lacked the kind of eagerness that has brought many male arthouse directors to Oscar glory. Likewise, French director Céline Sciamma’s widely acclaimed film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a period romance between a female aristocrat and the woman hired to paint her portrait lost out to Ladj Ly’s violently powerful but far less acclaimed debut feature Les Misérables as France’s Oscar submission this year. Female protagonists that Varda would have hailed still have trouble finding their wings in an industry that seems apt to clip them.

Like her heroines, Varda eschewed rules and reveled in discovery, remaining ‘un-boxable’. She didn’t set aside her passion for photography and installation art as she made films or reject documentaries to label herself a feature filmmaker. She combined her passions to make things that felt constantly modern, always finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. In this sense, she echoes another filmmaker who could soar to prominence if given the opportunity, Melina Matsoukas. Matsoukas’ film Queen and Slim pays homage to her background in music videography through the poetry of its structure and surprises us at every turn, super charging issues of racial injustice with a vibrant and heretofore unseen cinematic language. Staying true to the politics of being a woman of colour, Matsoukas tells a story of love, race and identity as a Black couple journey across America on the run. Despite rave reviews and a truly original piece of craft, Matsoukas’ film, written by another rising female star Lena Waithe, has received short shrift in awards season. 

As she grew older, Varda continued to forge new ground, growing more ruminative of the socio-politics of the world around her. She made The Gleaners and I in two parts in 2000 and 2002 as she entered her seventies. The documentaries looked at the lives of people who scavenged farms for produce, eventually looking at ‘collectors’ of all sorts, from junkyards to dumpster divers. Gleaners became a deeply moving reflection, infused with Varda’s signature lightness and humor, on consumption, on one man’s waste being another’s treasure and in her ever self-reflective search – on the artistic gleaning that is at the core of influence and inspiration. Eager to adapt, she embraced the digital handheld camera as a new plaything and found freedom in it, developing what she called ‘cinécriture’ which allowed her to narrate as she filmed. Varda said that she made documentaries occasionally ‘to be forced to be in the service of your subject’ and France thanked her for it, sending in thousands of personal stories of gleaning. A film that started with a seventy-two-year old Agnès Varda striking up a conversation in a potato field, was selected for Cannes’ main slate and won awards around the world capturing the public imagination for many of the reasons Bong Joon-Ho’s brilliant Parasite, with its astute commentary on income inequality, has today. 

In her final years, Varda worked spiritedly in the face of ill health and a battle with cancer, saving her most radical lessons for the last. In an industry that is notoriously ageist when it comes to women, who on screen are given an expiration date in their thirties and off screen are lucky if they get a career break before then, Agnès Varda turned the camera on herself at eighty and then again at ninety giving us The Beaches of Agnès in 2008 and Varda by Agnès in 2019. In Beaches, although she describes herself as ‘a little old lady’, Varda has the merry eyes and curious heart of a toddler as she rummages through her life and its work on screen, setting up shots involving antique mirrors through which we see her literally walk us backwards to the beaches where she grew up, sailing under her favourite bridge in a dinghy on the river Seine and visiting Sète where she filmed La Pointe Courte to find the town has named a street after her. Varda knows that she is at the center of her own triumph and she embraces it. That she sees age as ‘a subject, not a condition’ is even more apparent in Varda by Agnès. Aware that it will be her final date with her camera, she intersperses snippets of interviews and lectures she has given with film clips, photographs and art installations, guiding us through her multi-faceted oeuvre with the gentle but confident hand of someone who will write their own story to the very last word. 

If we had any doubt of Varda’s enduring vitality, in between the films that bookended her last decade, she collaborated with the celebrated French street artist JR who at almost sixty years her junior was a kindred spirit. Their documentary, Faces Places, covering their time on the road together exploring their surroundings and the people that populated them, through their art, was nominated for an Oscar in 2018. More than anything, the film was a celebration of a deep artistic bond that does not recognize the boundary of time. Agnès Varda, already battling sickness, sent a cardboard cutout of herself to accompany JR to the Oscar nominees’ luncheon. It was signature Varda – creative, playful but most of all, aware that the awards, while nice, didn’t validate her career or her work.

This was just as well. Aside from award recognition at the Berlin and Venice film festivals for Le Bonheur and Vagabond in 1965 and 1985, while her films were critically acclaimed and welcomed at festivals, most of the major awards Varda received were in the last two decades of her life, commemorating a body of work that should have been celebrated on a grand scale far sooner. Since the turn of this century, Varda has received countless awards in France culminating in the highest order of merit as a ‘Grand Officier de la Legion D’honneur’ in 2017. She was the first woman to be awarded an honorary Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2015 and the first and oldest female director to be awarded an honorary Oscar in 2017, which ironically preceded her first Oscar nomination for a film in 2018 for Faces Places, aged eighty-nine. When she died, her friend Martin Scorsese, one of the most recognized filmmakers in history, recalled Varda as ‘one of the Gods’ saying, “I seriously doubt that Agnès Varda ever followed in anyone else’s footsteps, in any corner of her life and art, which were one and the same”.

The fact that Varda was ahead of her time was a credit to her, that she remains so is a knock on us. This year’s Academy Awards are the capstone on an awards season that continues be emblematic of a glaring issue, not simply that we sideline female filmmakers but that women celebrate the work of men while men find it harder to do the same. As much as award shows are an industry and not the sole arbiter of talent, they speak to the public and to power and therefore to reach, success, future funding and thus a cycle of opportunity that begets power. The Oscars, for better or worse, are the goalpost. The majority of this year’s crop of best directors and best films including Scorsese’s The Irishman, Todd Phillips’ Joker, Sam Mendes’ 1917, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari highlight male nostalgia, male rage, male bravery and male camaraderie. In a year with a plethora of laudable efforts from female directors, Gerwig’s Little Women was the singular film which was roundly applauded but yet not enough to land her a directing nomination. In addition to Hustlers, Queen and Slim, The Souvenir and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there was groundbreaking work that was overlooked in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy, Mati Diop’s Atlantics, Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart and Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, to name a few. 

It strikes me that we failed Varda, even as she gave us much to triumph in, recognizing her too late. But perhaps she was so far ahead of the times that we needed the sixty-five years from her debut to play catch-up to her. If so, this is no time to dawdle. It would be a shame to repeat the same mistake with a generation of women who are producing work that is urgent, original and disruptive. Varda’s work contains a multitude of innovations that moved cinema forward and inspired countless filmmakers from Goddard to Gerwig. More pertinently, she schooled us in the importance of defying convention, celebrating the female gaze, telling women’s stories, disrupting social hierarchies and giving the lie to ageism and sexism. Her canon is a gift, a revolutionary guide, that teaches us everything we need to know about which direction to go in, her films are a roadmap to shifting the course of history. She showed us what was possible but it’s a place we have to get to, not one we have arrived at. Let’s recognize this generation of Vardas now, it’s the dance she would have wanted. 

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