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Agnès Varda (1928-2019) - a warm heart and an irrepressible lust for filmmaking

Should we be sad now that we have just learned that Agnès Varda died in Paris on 29 March? Of course. But would she herself have wanted a funeral song? I suspect not. When her life partner, the filmmaker Jacques Demy knew in 1990 that he did not have long to live, she portrayed him in Jacquot de Nantes as the playful boy he had been in his youth. Despite the sad occasion, it became a remarkably joyful and heartfelt mix of documentary, memory and almost fairy-tale drama.

Agnès Varda was one of the few French filmmakers who never lost the bold and impetuous spirit of the famed Nouvelle Vague. She lived film. Just two years ago, we saw her herself, together with photographer J.R. crossing France in Visages villages. I count more than 50 of her titles from 1955 to 2019 on the Internet Movie Database. Very different films, from oppressive to cheerful and experimental, feature films and just as many documentaries. She stole my heart barely 20 years ago with Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, in which she also walks around herself. But more on that in a moment.

Free spirit

Her best-known early film is Cléo de 5 à 7, an experiment with real time - two hours in the life of a singer with serious concerns. Varda could be playful but also chose subjects like Black Panthers and Vietnam, and gave Sandrine Bonnaire a starring role as the lonely waif in Sans toit ni loi. Precisely because Varda was such a free and independent spirit, she was perhaps the right person to show the stark side of independence and loneliness here. A film made for love, a timeless masterpiece.

Film and life

There is a temptation to list all sorts of examples from her rich and creative oeuvre, but I will limit myself to Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000). Film and life were always closely intertwined for Varda, as this winner of the European award for best documentary also shows. The 'glaneurs' are not just the arena readers in the cornfield, as in Jean-François Mellit's painting. It also refers to anyone who occasionally browses among discarded items. With her lightweight digital camera, Varda went in search of contemporary 'arena readers'. She meets colourful eccentrics as well as homeless people and vagrants for whom searching for rejected potatoes is a bitter necessity. Meanwhile, it becomes clear that Varda herself also sees her way of collecting images as a form of hoarding. She finds a clock without hands and muses on ageing, coincidence and filmmaking.

Thus she demonstrates without emphasis or pretension something that actually pervades her entire oeuvre. Namely, how with her, film and life are always intertwined. It is a film instinct that few people have. In Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse you then see how, thanks to that feeling and intuition, a sparkling and moving reflection grows out of all those seemingly randomly gathered portraits. Agnès Varda made human films from a warm heart and an irrepressible desire to discover life and capture it in images.

Leo Bankersen

Leo Bankersen has been writing about film since Chinatown and Night of the Living Dead. Reviewed as a freelance film journalist for the GPD for a long time. Is now, among other things, one of the regular contributors to De Filmkrant. Likes to break a lance for children's films, documentaries and films from non-Western countries. Other specialities: digital issues and film education.View Author posts

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