Agnès was an artist. And like all artists, she made our lives different. She captured life through the most normal lens to reveal what is beautiful and strange about it, while also working tirelessly to expose the false truths. Her presence in the world was absolutely unique but also intuitive, such that nothing surprised us coming from her: an idea, a phrase, a photograph, a documentary.
It’s thanks to her film “The Gleaners and I” — which I saw at Cannes in 2000 as a simple festivalgoer — that, when I became artistic director a year later, I made it a point to program documentaries and essay films in the official selection. And what an extraordinary moment it was, in 2017, to welcome her for “Faces Places” in the grande salle of the Palais!
Agnès was the vital link in an invisible chain of women filmmakers, rubbing elbows with Alice Guy Blaché and Germaine Dulac, Ida Lupino and Dorothy Arzner. No doubt she will be remembered as the most important female director in the history of cinema. The lone woman among the men of the French New Wave, she and Jean-Luc Godard outlived them all. While she never distanced herself from the feminist fight, she rarely made that the central theme of her work. Rather, she aspired to be seen first as a photographer, a filmmaker, a creator in her own right. Not “because she was a woman,” but because she was an artist.
At the same time, what she brought to the history of cinema — her themes, scenes, casting ideas and gentle yet determined approach to filmmaking — all of this is unique and comes from the sensibility and creativity of a woman, a spouse, a mother. Those three titles, which she claimed totally and which made her who she was, undoubtedly nourished her imagination without ever limiting it, because her imagination was boundless.
In 2015, Pierre Lescure and the Cannes team gave her an honorary Palme d’Or. What earned her the applause was not just the admiration of the entire world but the words of her acceptance speech, the meaning she gave to the award when she spoke of her youth and encouraged the next generation to get involved.
In 2017, the Academy gave her an honorary Oscar, which was also an unforgettable moment — especially seeing her dance with Angelina Jolie. In 2018, she and Cate Blanchett led the women’s march up the steps of the Palais in Cannes. We were all overwhelmed, once again, by the admiration and the respect that everyone showed her.
Last Thursday, Agnès felt that she was about to leave us and called a few of her friends to say goodbye. I had the privilege of being one of them, but that didn’t lessen the shock or the grief of losing her, nor can it make up for all that she brought into our lives.
If, as François Truffaut claimed, Jean Renoir was the top man in French cinema, well then, Agnès Varda was surely his counterpart among women. Like him, she was someone of strong convictions, prepared to struggle for her cause — an artist unlike any other, an invaluable friend and an irreplaceable human being.
Thierry Frémaux is the artistic director of the Cannes Film Festival.