Agnès Varda, the woman at the heart of French New Wave, has died age 90. Varda had a sense of humour. In her old age, she introduced herself as a potato. ‘A heart-shaped potato – growing again’ she told those who gathered at the French Institute in New York to learn from her experience in directing.
Like the humble potato, she was assimilated, essential and energetic – JCM
The film-maker and writer Laura Mulvey introduced me to Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) a slow, lyrical film of a young singer waiting through the day to hear the results of a test for cancer, beautifully shot in black-and-white elegance, marking the time to a different beat to the dominant camera-narrative of Hollywood. It was soft and thoughtful, a contrast to that art where shouting and shock, drama and arrogant posturing. I found it initially confusing while I was reorientating myself into different works of the camera. I also found it hard to reconcile the blonde glamour with developing European artist-led film-making beyond the beauty and elegance of her journey.
When it came to Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse; The Gleaners and I (2000) I had prepared myself better. This film, her first digital production is is an essay that uses the improvisational quality of the new generation of portable camera, and the narcissistic self-reflection of its eye locates the film-maker at the heart of the work. I love to see that shot of her holding the wheat on her shoulder, letting it drop to the floor casually but with purpose. The way the manual revolves into shot. The simplicity of using the media, playing with the new image-making and putting her face right up to the lens. The narrative is fascinating, her powers as a poet adding layers and layer. Without the commentary, the film would lack the dimensions I find in the rhythm of her voice.
This potato was unafraid of the land. Not scared of the dirt of everyday life. Beginning in that fashion-soft whirl through early 1960s glamour It buried itself in the soil and has grown work that is itself transforming and has set a path for other film-makers working outside of the bigger studios.
Without Varda, the French New Wave would miss the person I most identify with, the one who made the movement mean something to me as an artist. She shot on location, she used non-professional actors and she placed women at the centre of this new generation of makers. Her early journey, reaching film-making through photography is fascinating because from the start she was interested not only in artwork but in documenting among the people rather than looking at others from a lofty vantage point. Like the humble potato, she was assimilated, essential and energetic.
She moved into cinema with La Pointe Courte (1954) about a couple working through their relationship in a small fishing town. Character and its ties to abstract physicality inform the film. It all is a philosophical making that leads to her final statement that she is a potato.
Rather than being a theoretician, Varda worked on the ground, from within the community. She was not a theoretical feminist, conjuring a theory, applying a method, but she worked practically and followed her own viewpoint through. For me, her humour is part of this resistance. She can let the pressure of convention slide because she can shrug it off with a little laugh that does not diminish the importance of the work, instead adds to it.
To remember her today I am going to re-watch Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse to begin with and feel something of the excitement I felt the first time sitting as part of an interested ‘Women in Film’ group, watching that camera dangle, hearing her talk about mistakes in filming that she later incorporated into the footage with comment. I will think about her philosophy as I listen to her voice, talking softly, definitely, lyrically but purpose. I will think about how lucky we to have and how we can use these modern tools to express our point of view and to tell stories about ourselves and the world now, rather than hark back to corporate architecture.
Which brings me back to what Agnès Varda does in her films. The effect of the work on me. She comforts me about being myself, my oddities and my human-ness, in my possibilities to do and contribute my open opinion. She makes me feel worthwhile. She’s an antidote to the pressures of society bearing down. She’s important, critical to me.
Agnès Varda 30 May 1928 – 29 March 2019
Words: Jude Cowan Montague Photo Agnès Varda 1965