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Agnes Varda, Leading Light of French New Wave, Dies at 90

Agnes Varda, a leading light of the French New Wave who directed such films as “Cléo From 5 to 7,” “Vagabond” and “Faces Places,” has died. She was 90.

Varda’s death from breast cancer at her Paris home was confirmed Friday by her family. “The filmmaker and artist Agnes Varda died from a cancer at her home in the night of March 29, 2019, surrounded by her family and friends,” the family’s statement said, describing her as a “joyful feminist” and “passionate artist.”

The funeral is expected to take place in Paris on Tuesday.

Just last month, the diminutive director presented her latest film, “Varda by Agnes,” at the Berlin Film Festival and received the honorary Berlinale Camera award. She had films in competition at the festival four times, winning the Grand Jury Prize in 1965 with “Le Bonheur.” But as ill health overtook her in recent weeks, Varda canceled the masterclass she was scheduled to deliver at the Qumra event in Doha, Qatar, earlier this month.

The news of her death drew swift tributes to her indomitable and curious spirit.

“Varda’s gone, but Agnes will still be here. Intelligent, lively, sweet, spiritual, laughing, comical, unexpected as is her work,” former Cannes Film Festival president Gilles Jacob tweeted, adding that Varda’s “movies are our treasure. A national treasure: that of the French spirit.”

Varda’s acclaim spanned decades, beginning with her 1955 feature debut, “La Pointe Courte.” In an appreciation of her career, Variety critic Peter DeBruge said that Varda’s oeuvre bore an unmistakably personal stamp. “Where other directors make movies, Varda crafts personal works of art, revealing dimensions of herself in the process,” he wrote.

She was awarded an honorary Oscar, a Governors Award, in 2017, becoming the first female director to receive the accolade. With ironic modesty, Varda described herself to a German interviewer as “a little queen at the outskirts of film.”

Varda was born to a Greek father and French mother in Brussels, Belgium, but the family moved to to the southern France during World War II, near the sea. The young Agnes grew up with an abiding interest in the arts, particularly literature and photography, which wound up informing her work throughout her long career. “Photography has never ceased to teach me how to make films,” she once said.

When she decided to direct her debut motion picture, “La Pointe Courte,” she had little experience in film, reputedly having gone to the cinema fewer than a dozen times. A seaside romance, “La Pointe Courte” was edited by Alain Resnais but was not received kindly by everyone. 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 other critics were more impressed, and that “girl,” with her fierce independence and sharp eye, went on to become a powerful inspiration for the French New Wave artists whose names still resonate today, including François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Varda remained the only female member of the Nouvelle Vague, and as an outsider because of her gender, she became a champion of the rights of women and their place in the male-dominated world of film.

Her iconoclasm also meant that she did not shy away from addressing taboo topics such as sex and death in her work, which exhibited a formal daring that retains the ability to astonish, with her use of the camera, cuts and montages, the mixing of documentary and fiction. Varda’s best-known and most commercially successful film, 1962’s “Cléo From 5 to 7,” follows a glamorous singer through the streets of Paris almost in real time as the woman awaits the results of a cancer test – an eerie foreshadowing of Varda’s own death from the disease nearly 60 years later.

Varda married fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy, the director of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” in 1962. The couple moved to California toward the end of the decade, when Demy was hired to make “Model Shop,” and together they made Los Angeles a regular base throughout their lives. (Demy died in 1990.) While there, Varda associated with the likes of Dennis Hopper and Andy Warhol, and filmed a Black Panthers protest demanding the release of Huey P. Newton. She never worked for Hollywood, preferring to carve out her own path.

Her only Academy Award nomination came for her 2017 road movie, “Faces Places,” a traveling documentary she made with French graffiti artist JR, who shares the directing credit. In the same vein as two of Varda’s previous movies, 2000’s “The Gleaners and I” and 2008’s “The Beaches of Agnes,” the film follows the odd couple as they hopscotch from village to village in France, where they meet the locals – including coal miners, truck drivers and cheese makers – and create art. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wrote that the film’s message “is simplicity itself: Everyone is who they are.”

Just as Varda was, with her two-toned hair, pixie face and blunt air. In December, receiving a career tribute at the Marrakech Film Festival, she spoke movingly of shining a spotlight on people on the margins of society in her films. “There are thousands of people who are fighting to survive, to find some work, to receive a decent salary, to get a little dignity, and a little bit of happiness, and million of human beings who are seeking refuge,” she said.

Her final film, “Varda by Agnes,” which she presented at last month’s Berlinale, was described by critic Guy Lodge as a “blend of memoir and cinematic TED talk,” full of whimsy and reflection. It turned out to be Varda’s valediction, the close to a career that delighted, confounded and, above all, soared.

Varda is survived by her children, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy.

Elsa Keslassy contributed to this report.

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