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French New Wave: Sexism – Agnes Varda, Most Underestimated, Unrecognized Co-Founder

It’s time to restore and revise film history: Agnes Varda should get full credit as a co-founder and the only significant female member of the French New Wave.

Most books about this innovative movement, whose official birth is considered to be in 1959, have singled out the quintet of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, and Claude Chabrol.

But what about Varda, who was born in 1928 in Belgium (but studied and lived in Paris), and belongs to the same cohort of rebellious filmmakers?

Varda began her career as a photographer and her artist’s vibrant eye is clearly manifest in all of her work. She had a remarkably accomplished career, as a fisherman, political activist, co-founder of the French New Wave, wife, and working partner of Jacques Demy (a latent homosexual who had died of AIDS in 1990).

Varda made a most promising directing debut, at the age of 27, with La Pointe Courte, a black-and-white drama that interweaves two stories. Unlike most early New Wave features, the tale is not set in Paris, but in South France, at the Pointe Courte (“Short Point”), a quarter of a fisherman’s village.


A young man (played by the great French actor Philippe Noiret) arrives at a train station to see his wife (Silvia Monfort). After four years of marriage, the couple is going through a crisis. The wife loves her husband, but she is thinking of leaving him. Though he had an affair, the problem is not just jealousy, but whether or not there’s still genuine love.

The marital drama unfolds against a unique physical setting, a village populated by poor fishermen, who barely make a living by harvesting shellfish from a small lagoon. 

In its concern with ordinary folks, and visually, the film shows influences of Italian neo-realistic films of the 1940s by Rossellini and De Sica. While the village life is shot in an ultra-realistic mode, the marital drama utilizes more stylized treatments like theatrical monologues and close-ups.

Alain Resnais, then a young director himself (he made the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog, also in 1955), and soon to be one of the leaders of the New Wave (Hiroshima Mon Amour, in 1959), is one of the editors, alongside Henri Colpi.

She followed up with the 1962 film, Cléo from 5 to 7, her best-known and most inventive feature, which put her on the map as a major figure of International Cinema.

The story, which is highly original, starts with a young singer named Florence “Cléo” Victoire, at 5 pm on June 21, as she eagerly waits for 90 minutes (until 6:30 pm) to get the results of a medical test, anticipating a diagnosis of cancer. The duration of the story almost parallels the running time of the movie.

The existential film includes themes of mortality, despair, and ultimately, the importance of leading a joyous and meaningful life. Bearing a strong female (and for some feminist) viewpoint, it also raises questions about how women are perceived by men, and how they perceive themselves in France, and by implication, in other societies.

Visually, Varda often uses mirrors in order to symbolize Cleo’s obsession with her physical looks, and the image (both real and idealized) that she projects to herself and to others.

The film is noted by the cameo appearance of French icons Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine, and Jean-Claude Brialy as characters in the silent film that Raoul is showing Cléo and Dorothée. Legendary composer Michel Legrand, who wrote the score, plays “Bob the pianist.”

Among many achievements, Varda is the one who convinced Godard, a hero and friend, to remove his signature dark glasses, claiming, “I wanted to photograph his beautiful eyes.” 

The film premiered in competition at the 1962 Cannes Festival, but it took decades until it got the credit that it deserved, especially in the U.S.

A light feminist streak runs through Varda’s 1977 One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, a tale of female friendship, which spans 14 years in the relationship between two very different women. Pauline (Valerie Mairesse) is a middle-class city girl, at odds with her very conventional and bourgeois family. Suzanne (Therese Liotard) is several years older, a country girl with two illegitimate children and another on the way.

Directed in 1985, Vagabond tells the touching story of Mona, a young drifter, magnificently played by the then known Sandrine Bonnaire. This superlative pseudo-documentary study of a homeless female drifter is arguably her best work. The essence of the film, which won the top award at the Venice Film Festival, is captured by its original French title, Sans Toit ni Loi, literally meaning “with no roof or law.”

A regular presence on the Croisette, Varda has enjoyed a long relationship with the festival.  Three of her documentaries premiered there: Jacquot de Nantes (about her late husband, the noted director Jacques Demy), The Gleaners and I, and, most self-reflexive of all, The Beaches of Agnes (Les Plages d’Agnès).

In this engaging documentary, Varda takes a long look back at her life and art by revisiting her favorite beaches. A personal memoir, with moving recollections of her late husband Jacques (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) Demy, it also serves as an informal history of the New Wave.

Varda projects a youthful, curious, restless, intelligent spirit, open to all kinds of experiences and encounters.  From the Belgian beach of her youth, the narrative goes on to Sète, a seaside resort town in Southern France, Venice Beach in Los Angeles (where she first met Jim Morrison), Noirmourtier Island, and finally Paris. Since Paris is not a beach town, Varda had to import sands onto the urban streets, in which she created an office with staff and desks.

The beaches are Varda’s point of departure for a journey down memory lane that’s remarkably unsentimental. Instead of lamenting the state of current cinema, or the natural slowing down that goes along with aging, she is upbeat in outlook, emphasizing the positive aspects and cumulative impact of her rich life.

A lucid, illuminating, occasionally playful and humorous voice-over narration accompanies this collage of photographs, movie clips, interviews, letters, and assorted encounters. “Here I am,” she says in the opening self-deprecating scene, “playing the role of a little old lady, pleasingly plump and talkative, telling the story of my life.”  “Imagining oneself as a child is like running backward,” she later states. “Imagining oneself ancient is funny, like a dirty joke.”

A personal cinematic essay about art, memory, and mortality, Beaches of Agnes is the kind of film that would be approved by Godard and the other leaders of the New Wave.

In the end, it’s Varda who gets the last word: “My mise-en-scène is my way of sharing my gratitude.”  Beaches of Agnès showcases an alert artist, who despite older age is very much at the height of her creative powers and inquisitive intelligence. 

It’s a testament to the film’s dense texture and captivating commentary, and to Varda’s charismatic personality, that the documentary encourages viewers to revisit her entire oeuvre.

In 2015, Varda was awarded an Honorary Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and in 2017, she received an Honorary Oscar for Career Achievement, thus becoming the first female director to be feted with such accolade.  

She died on March 29, 2019, at the age of 90, leaving behind an extremely rich legacy made over a lucrative six-decade career, which motivated director Martin Scorsese to describe her as “one of the Gods of Cinema”.