Theater of Cruelty

Celebration of mankind's diversity

Varda by Agnès
Regissør: Agnès Varda

AGNES VARDA / The new French wave film pioneer and feminist reflects on his career and conveys a humanistic philosophy of life.


The question "Where are all the female directors?" Is being asked more and more often in an industry that has only now become aware of its own gender bias. And this marks a shift, after decades of single-tracked attention to the canonized male directors. Along with demands that more needs to be done to equalize the differences, through support for women-led film productions, the film history is rewritten: Female filmmakers who have not earned their spot in the limelight are now emerging so that a new generation can have enjoy their art.

Vital outbreak

It is only now that Agnès Varda has become the subject of public admiration. She was essential to the development of the "new French wave" in the late 50s – and one of the first female cinematographers to make a mark on European art films. In 2018, she was finally accepted into the Oscar heat, as the oldest nominee in history, for the road movie documentary Faces, Places (2017). When she arrived at the awards ceremony wearing silk pajamas and with her distinctive punkish, two-color hairstyle, it hailed with enthusiastic words on Twitter. An independent outsider, a bright spot of cheerful mischief, a self-proclaimed feminist and a true genius: Having been left out of the official narrative, Varda is now embraced as a vital burst of a creative energy we have missed.


A strong, creative man

Varda by Agnès (2019) had a world premiere at the Berlin, and it is rumored that this will be her last film [Varda went out of time in March this year, ed. note]. The film gives a good overview of her life's work and is an ideal starting point for new fans: It is partly a master class, where she guides us through clips from a very innovative career, and partly deeper considerations around her heartwarming philosophy of life – all accomplished with the imaginative the charm we expect from a film about and by Agnès Varda. And as a strong-willed, creative human being in a world ruled by men, she probably knew it was best to make the film herself – if she were to end up with a film that is true to its core.

When we first see Varda, she sits in her iconic director's chair, with "AGNES V." the pressure on the back of the chair, in front of an assembly of expectant filmmakers. And it is a fitting opening for a film that emphasizes that her creative practice is essential to the connection she has to others. She is not an ordinary wife and mother who also happens to make films (although her love for her late husband and new-wave colleague Jacques Demy and their children is anecdotally woven into the fabric of the film).

"I wanted to film freedom and shit"

Varda by Agnès Director Agnès Varda
Varda by Agnès Director Agnès Varda

We are given the understanding that film work is an all-inclusive lifestyle. But the work is not portrayed as a narcissistic vocation, as we know it from the artist myth of "the tormented genius", whose loved ones must suffer for the master to create: It is Varda's fundamental affinity for and empathy for humanity in all its manifestations , as well as the potential of art to be a healing force in society, which is the driving force.

Varda has long used the activist possibilities of the film media to shed light on how society and politics relate to the human body: the fear of cancer, concerns about our mortality and objectification of women are themes in Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) while in the free-spirited musical One Sings, The Other Doesn't (1977) – made at a time when the women's movement in France was taking place – the right to abortion is central. In her films, women do not settle for having to fit into a rigid, bourgeois form ("I wanted to film freedom and crap," she says of Vagabond, made in 1984, which is about an angry loner), instead they have room to try out different lifestyles and find themselves.

Inclusion and community

Even when she is not politically speaking, her work is about inclusion and community – the film is a way back to life passion and dignity. "I play a small, old lady, cozy thick and talkative, who tells her life story. But it's the others that really interest me, "she says, as teasingly cunning as she is whimsical and self-effacing. Her open-minded, friendly curiosity is the very basis of the film's many encounters with people in society's abrasive classes, with eccentric and marginalized: From the relationship she establishes to a man who delivers parsley to the farmer's market in The Gleaners and I (2000), to the enthusiastic digression of "togopaths" (adults with a heavy collection of model trains). "Nothing is trivial if you film people with empathy and love and think they are extraordinary, as I have done," she says.

In a world where the individual's identity is in a state of war, not to mention in the trenches, Varda's aftermath becomes an unconventional and merry celebration of humanity's diversity.

Varda died on March 29, 2019.
The film was shown at the Artists' House in Oslo on June 9 and 16. 2019.

Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Gray is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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