If you’re even a novice film buff, you’ve likely (and hopefully) heard the name Agnès Varda tossed around. Varda was a French filmmaker and avid photographer whose work ranges from documentary to fiction films. Some of her most famous films are Cléo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, and the recent Faces Places. She was married to Umbrellas of Cherbourg director Jacques Demy until his death.
Varda was a part (and one of the first directors) of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) movement in France during the late 1950s and early 1960s, but continued to make films until her death last year. Her films feature many of the core principles of the New Wave in that they reject classical filmmaking and experiment with camera, sound, location-shooting, and subject matter.
Varda’s canon is vast (55 director credits, including shorts) and her impact even greater. Not only was she a massive player in one of the most defining film movements of our time, she was also a constant presence at a time when filmmaking was dominated by famous men. Her work often contains similar themes of simplicity, wit, and the humble documentation of everyday life. But, the true joy of her work is that her humor and passion for life are evident in every single one of her films.
I’ve studied Varda’s work in countless film classes throughout college, but have watched even more of her films on my own. They’re just that good. Highlighted below are some of my personal favorites in chronological order, and great starts to understanding her filmmaking interests and achievements.
L’Opera Mouffe is a short film that Varda made while she was (obviously) pregnant. It explores the bustling streets of Paris, the ills of mankind, and the promise of young lovers in one neat little package. Influenced by her own pregnancy, the film details the various fates of different people while subtly questioning what her own child will become. With clean associative editing and gorgeous contrast throughout, L’Opera Mouffe is one of my favorite pieces of Varda’s. This film is a great introduction to some of Varda’s early preoccupations in filmmaking considering its short length.
Le Bonheur (Happiness) / 1965
Le Bonheur is a fictional film that follows a young working family in suburban Paris. When husband Francois falls for a postal worker, the family structure is slowly and explosively torn apart. With vivid colors and shocking twists, Le Bonheur demonstrates Varda’s mastery of mood, dialogue, and character development in a fascinating way. This is a film for the image-obsessed, with clean shots and beautiful placement throughout. The details of the family’s apartment, gorgeous outdoor scenes, and moments of simple pleasure are undeniable. If you’re interested in color theory, this is the Varda for you!
Daguerréotypes / 1976
Daguerréotypes is, in my opinion, one of Varda’s most wonderful documentaries. Sticking close to her neighborhood, Varda interviews small shopkeepers on the rue Daguerre in Paris. She visits the butcher, a magician, and a small odds-and-ends store owned by an elderly couple. Varda’s camera watches these people at work and monitors their daily interactions with patience and an eye for the ordinary. Daguerréotypes is a pristine snapshot in time focusing on the working class and truly captures regular people in a way that elevates their impact on the community at large. Sticking close to her own street allows for a personal touch that makes this film as much about the filmmaker as the subjects.
You can watch Daguerréotypes on Amazon Prime.
Vagabond / 1985
Vagabond is a fiction film that opens with protagonist Mona lying dead in a ditch in the French countryside. From there, Vagabond flashes back to Mona’s life before she ends up meeting her demise. Mona is homeless, a wandering vagabond looking for her next meal, cigarette, or moment of interaction. Vagabond is a quiet film, one that relies on gorgeous sweeping shots of France and small moments of bonding between characters, which is how we piece together Mona’s puzzle. Because we hear about Mona through the people she meets on her journey, we must stitch together her narrative ourselves. Vagabond is a film for the explorer, the wanderer, and the curious.
I hope this snapshot has provided an overview of Varda’s breadth of subject matter and types of films. Regardless of your interests, I am positive that she has made a film that you will enjoy. Whether you prefer documentary or fiction, families or individuals, communities or the isolated, you’ll find something to connect to in her films.
While not many of Varda’s films are currently available online, small theaters often screen her films at festivals and in retrospectives. Trust me, it’s worth it!
Click here to read my review of Varda by Agnès, a 2019 film (condensed from a TV series) about Varda’s lifelong commitment to filmmaking. This one is also a great introduction to her work, as it features little snippets of so many of her films. Varda by Agnès also features Varda speaking about her filmmaking process and provides behind-the-scenes looks at many of her most famous films. It also features a section on one of her most popular and beautiful photography exhibits.
Varda films not already mentioned that are available on Amazon Prime:
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977)
Jane B. Par Agnes V (1987)
Jacquot de Nantes (1991)
Beaches of Agnes (2008)
Agnes Varda: From Here to There (2014)
© Dayna Hagewood (3/19/20) FF2 Media
Top Photo: The parents in Le Bonheur
Middle Photos: L’Opera Mouffe; The butchers in Daguerréotypes
Bottom Photo: Agnès Varda arrives at the 90th Academy Awards on March 4, 2018 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles [Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/REX]