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Celebrating the Life and Career of Visionary French Director Agnès Varda

Until today, if you had asked me to name the greatest living filmmaker, I would have answered Agnès Varda. What a loss that the 90-year-old director — who died Friday, leaving behind such intimate masterpieces as “Cléo from 5 to 7,” “Vagabond,” and “The Gleaners and I” — will create no more.

Her passing is a chance for the world of cinema to come together and recognize the achievements of an outsider artist who lived long enough to appreciate the impact her work has had on both audiences and multiple generations of younger directors. Before the French New Wave took form in the late 1950s, it was Varda who paddled out from shore and shouted, “Hey boys, come on in! The water’s fine!” And in recent years, with a series of increasingly personal documentaries — including two, “The Beaches of Agnès” and “Faces Places,” that the Los Angeles Film Critics awarded along the way — Varda reiterated the liberating message of her 65-year career: Cinema is about sharing one’s point of view.

Few filmmakers have been able to look back on all they’ve done with the same certainty that each and every thing they’ve created has come from such a personal place, motivated not by commerce but a compulsion to connect, with her subjects and her audience. Varda was just 25 when she made her debut, “La Pointe Courte,” and she was working right up until the end, sharing the best of herself with audiences via the feature-length masterclass, “Varda by Agnès,” unveiled at the Berlin Film Festival in February, and earlier this month on French TV.

That documentary — more of a motion-picture essay, really, and a natural extension of the collage-like form of filmmaking she proved so instrumental in pioneering — was no doubt a conscious effort on Varda’s part to circle back and summarize her career, knowing that time was short and recognizing that so much of her effort in recent years had been spent cementing the legacy of her late husband, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” director Jacques Demy, through the restoration and re-release of his entire filmography. Finally, during these last few years, with support from the Film Foundation and others, she undertook the work of preserving her own oeuvre, to which “Varda by Agnès” essentially functions as a guided tour.

There are still many who have never seen a film by Agnès Varda and don’t know where to begin, or what was so significant about this woman, who looked almost like a cartoon character in her old age, with her two-toned hair and matching plum-colored wardrobe. Yes, Varda was adorable, exuding a childlike playfulness in both spirit and dress, but that contributed to a certain, almost patronizing acknowledgement of her place in film history — more a pat on the head than the hearty admiration to which she was entitled.

Looking back to the mid-’50s, when Varda — then a young photographer — had the bold impulse to try her hand at cinema, there was virtually no precedent for such independence. This was years before such revolutionary American directors as John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke struck out on their own, making films like “Shadows” and “The Connection” outside the system (but not, it should be said, before Maya Deren and other avant-garde originals took up cameras in their backyards). Filmmaking at the time was an industrial, heavily male-dominated enterprise, and to an immeasurable advantage, Varda was liberated by her own naïveté: Because she didn’t know what others were convinced she couldn’t do, she didn’t let that stop her.

“La Pointe Courte” is a modest, yet modern film, set in the seaside town of Sète, which the Belgian-born director knew intimately, blending documentary-style portraiture of the fishing community with a loose series of scenes between a young couple. Varda was assisted in post-production by Paris-based film editor Alain Resnais, who encouraged her, though the initiative was Varda’s, and that spark — the notion that no one needs permission to create — would remain one of her defining qualities as an artist.

Over the decades, Varda has moved fluidly between the worlds of photography, cinema, and fine art, to the extent that no one domain quite knew how to categorize her. On screen, Varda blurred the lines between documentary and fiction, frequently focusing on overlooked stories and individuals: the hungry, the homeless, and the weak of heart.

“I make ‘proximity’ or ‘neighborhood’ cinema,” she told me in advance of Berlin this year. “I never learned what one should know to make complex or huge production films. I wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

“Varda by Agnès” further elaborates upon her philosophy of filmmaking, and in particular her idea of “cinécriture,” which could be translated as “cine-writing”: “The word ‘screenwriting’ is too much related to screenplay, whereas ‘cine-writing’ concerns a series of choices, done after the writing, such as 35 or 16mm, color or black-and-white, actors or real people,” she explained. “Cine-writing is the answer to such questions as how much movement is involved, whether to use music, what kind of editing, the rhythm of the film. In literature, it would simply be called the style of the writer.”

Varda’s style evolved organically through her films, as inexperience gave way to a language all her own. “As the French proverb says, by forging you become a blacksmith,” she playfully described, looking back. Today, in the age of GoPros and iMovie, do-it-yourself filmmaking is a familiar concept, but all those decades ago, not so much. But did that stop her? In 1962, Varda was invited to premiere her second feature “Cléo from 5 to 7” in competition at Cannes. By this time, seven years after “La Pointe Courte” had played the festival, many young male directors had followed her lead in France — names such as Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol — bypassing the industry and taking small, lightweight cameras into the streets to make their own movies.

Those directors, now synonymous with the French New Wave, were die-hard cinephiles quoting and riffing and responding to the films they loved, whereas Varda (along with Resnais and “La Jetée” maker Chris Marker) embodied the artier sensibility of the city’s Left Bank. Both groups innovated the language of cinema, but in Varda’s work, you can genuinely sense the spirit of invention: Her instincts are uncorrupted by what has come before. “Cléo” is a peculiar film, weighted down by thoughts of mortality — it unspools almost in real time, as the title character, played by Corinne Marchand, nervously awaits a life-and-death assessment of her heart condition — and yet so light in style that Cléo’s feet hardly seem to touch the ground.

Ahead of its time in so many ways, “Cléo” privileges a female character’s perspective in an immediate and totally unapologetic way (one of my favorite details is the cab driver, also a woman, who drives Cléo around for a stretch). Not all of Varda’s films center on female characters, although she worked with Catherine Deneuve on “The Creatures” and Warhol superstar Viva in “Lions Love (…and Lies),” and channeled challenges in her marriage with Demy into autobiographical fiction with “Le Bonheur” and “Documenteur.” (Though there was pain in their relationship, she also paid homage to his childhood in the film “Jacquot de Nantes,” and paid tribute to him five years after he died of AIDS-related complications via the documentary “The World of Jacques Demy.”)

Her most generous feature, “Vagabond,” focuses entirely on a young woman (played by Sandrine Bonnaire) who proactively chooses to reject social pressures and live life on the road. The movie expresses no judgment, only curiosity and empathy — two words that define Varda’s approach to nearly all her subjects, and which certainly might have seemed rare toward such a character. Within the film, Varda stages faux documentary interviews with the people her protagonist met along the way, contrasting the way they describe her with footage in which the young woman is allowed to be the (tragic) hero of her own story.

I could walk you through each of the films in Varda’s oeuvre, but I have already written much about her achievements for Variety over the years. And besides, it’s better to let Agnès do so herself via her own documentary, whose title puts audiences on a first-name basis with a filmmaker whom history might otherwise study from a more detached distance. Instead, I will share how getting to know Agnès these past years has been the great treasure of my time at Variety

The first year the magazine sent me to Cannes, I spotted the then-82-year-old director’s trademark haircut — snow white on top, ringed with purple fringe, like a frosted red velvet cake, or Mount Fuji seen from afar — as I entered the festival’s Palais for a screening of Maïwenn’s film “Polisse.” I was bold enough to take the seat beside her, but too timid to do much more than gush. Agnès responded genially, and seemed genuinely grateful to know her films had had such an effect on a young American. After the film, she invited me to stop by her studio in Rue Daguerre if ever I was in Paris — which I did several days later, on my way home from the festival.

What impressed me about this encounter with Agnès was her sheer humility. Each of Agnès’ films is a pure expression of herself, and to the extent that these missives sent out into the world succeed in touching people of all ages and cultures, she always seems grateful to hear the personal ways in which audiences respond to her work. She reveals herself to us via each project, and in turn, many have been fortunate enough to reciprocate by telling her what the films evoke in us.

When I moved to Paris a few years later to cover the international festival circuit for Variety, I made it a point to reconnect with Agnès, all but stalking her as she moved from art openings to awards ceremonies to retrospective screenings of her and Demy’s films — by the end of which, I feel we had adopted each other as honorary members of some imaginary family. To spend any amount of time near Agnès is to witness how this dynamic works: Her daughter Rosalie (who managed her business affairs and produced her later films) and son Mathieu (an actor whom she cast as Jane Birkin’s much-younger love interest in her movie “Kung Fu Master”) remained close, while current and former collaborators were adoringly included, like so many beloved children, in her world travels.

On one hand, it pains me to think that she will not be attending any more of these events, but I find comfort — cause for celebration, really — that these past two decades brought a robust rediscovery and renewed appreciation of her life’s work from all corners. So many essential artists pass away without witnessing the impact they have had on others, but in Varda’s case, the invitations and accolades seemed all but constant, and she did her best to rise to the challenge that such attention demanded. It may seem enviable to be flown from festival to festival on virtually every continent to accept lifetime achievement awards, but such travel takes a toll. As far as I could tell, it was never about the glory; rather, she was effectively reinforcing the kind of personal connection audiences feel they have when watching her films by making the effort to show up when asked (or Skype in, as she memorably did to receive her latest LAFCA award).

I credit her 2000 docu-essay, “The Gleaners and I,” with this late-career revival, as it triggered the honorary César (the French film industry’s equivalent to the Oscar) she received the following year, and paved the way for the honorary Oscar bestowed on her by the Academy in 2017. Via that last event, the American film industry joined in the joyful group hug the world has given Varda. Directors Greta Gerwig and Kimberly Peirce shared heartfelt stories about how much the French director had inspired them, and Steven Spielberg was seen hugging the lifesize cutout of the diminutive director that her “Faces Places” collaborator, the French graffiti artist JR, had sent on her behalf to the Academy luncheon.

“The Gleaners and I” is as simple a film as one could image, crafted around a wonderfully intuitive central metaphor: Varda presents herself as a kind of collector, assembling footage in much the way that gleaners — those people, often women, who follow behind the harvest — salvage whatever treasures the farmers have left behind. The movie came out the same year that “Survivor” debuted on television, ushering in a wave of “reality TV” and the landscape we see today, where documentaries command the same respect as narrative features. That wasn’t necessarily true before 2000, and for this reason, “The Gleaners and I” remains a rebellious kind of work — and my favorite of Varda’s films.

She was noodling with the form, experimenting with her new toy (a digital camera versatile enough to take anywhere), and suggesting the direction that others might take in the years to come, as the barriers to filmmaking dissolved and young people would find it possible to make their own versions of “La Pointe Courte.” In “The Gleaners and I,” Agnès — for it is unmistakably “Agnès,” not “Varda” behind the wheel — is not only sharing herself, but inviting others to be every bit as personal in their work. Trends and technology change, rendering so many movies obsolete, but it’s the intimate touch of Varda’s approach to cinema that will make her films last, ensuring that the essence of what it meant to be Agnès will live forever.

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