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Legendary filmmaker and French New Wave pioneer Agnes Varda dies aged 90

She continued making films right up to her death.

Agnés Varda in February of this year at the Berlinale festival.
Agnés Varda in February of this year at the Berlinale festival.
Image: DPA/PA Images

THE PIONEERING FEMINIST filmmaker Agnes Varda has died, aged 90.

The film legend, who effectively kicked off the French New Wave in 1954 with her debut film La Pointe Courte, died today, her family said.

“The director and artist Agnes Varda died at her home on the night of Thursday, March 29, of complications from cancer. She was surrounded by her family and friends,” the family said in a statement.

Varda was born in Belgium but lived in France, and was married to the late filmmaker Jaques Demy. She worked right up to the end of her life, with a new autobiographical documentary premiering at the Berlin film festival just last month.

She won an honorary Oscar at 89 for her moving documentary Faces Places, which she made with the French street artist JR. In the film, the pair travelled around France to shoot portraits of people, pasting them onto large buildings. Though separated by over five decades in age, the pair bonded over a shared interest in the little details of people’s lives, and celebrating the ordinary.

Source: TEDx Talks/YouTube

Throughout her career, Varda worked in whatever form she wished, from documentary to feature. Inspired by her love of and career in photography, her work reflected the passions of a woman deeply interested in both people but also how the world treats women. A lifelong feminist, she was a major player in the French New Wave, though at times was forgotten in favour of her male peers who made films after her.

Varda’s breakthrough film was 1962′s Cleo de 5 a 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7), about a singer who spends the day in Paris while waiting for test results from her doctor. The subtle details in how Cleo is treated – and how she sees herself – reflect Varda’s view on how French society at the time viewed women.

She won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival and a host of other awards for her 1985 film Vagabond, which looked – backwards – at the journey of a homeless woman who is found dead in a ditch. The social realism served to show how women on the margins could be treated when most vulnerable.

Varda also made a series of documentaries in the United States and Cuba, including Black Panthers (1968), Hi Cubans! (1971) and Far From Vietnam (1967).

Born in Belgium in 1928 to a French mother and Greek father whose family had fled Turkey, Varda changed her first name from Arlette to Agnes when she turned 18 and began her career as a photographer.

Varda was an uncompromising force in an industry which is only belatedly recognising the contribution of women. When she won an honorary Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 2015, she became the first female to win the coveted award.

She faced sexism in the industry – in Variety’s obituary today, it even notes that in its review of La Pointe Courte: 

In a sentence as sexist as it was curt, Variety dismissed it by saying that the “main aspect of this film is that it was made for $20,000 by a 25-year-old girl.”

But no matter what critics may have said, Varda pursued her filmmaking with a vigour that didn’t let up even as she aged.

As the Cannes festival said in 2015: “Her work and her life are infused with the spirit of freedom, the art of driving back boundaries, a fierce determination and a conviction that brooks no obstacles. Simply put, Varda seems capable of accomplishing everything she wants.”

As the work of female filmmakers is being rediscovered and reappraised, figures like Varda will prove an inspiration to a new generation of filmmakers – and cinephiles. 

- With details from - © AFP, 2019

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