Many filmmakers have taught me how to look at the world, but Agnès Varda is teaching me how to age. She died this week at the age of 90, leaving behind an example we should all strive to meet as we get on in years.
One of the legendary filmmakers who made up the Nouvelle Vague, France’s influential cinematic New Wave of the 1960s, she continually embraced life and a changing world, even after losing her beloved husband and fellow New Wave icon, Jacques Demy, in 1990. In the years when one might have expected her to grow more home-bound, perhaps venturing forth to publish a memoir or pick up the occasional award, she instead continued to plunge into the ever-changing technology of cinema.
As a filmmaker, she constantly experimented with digital cameras and editing, never afraid to step into the arena of the young and always open to completely upending everything she had ever learned about production. But where her peer Jean-Luc Godard would perversely turn 3-D on its head in “Goodbye to Language,” Varda’s hand-held cameras allowed her to grow more intimate, with moving, witty, personal documentaries like the Oscar-nominated “Faces Places,” the autobiographical “The Beaches of Agnès” and the universally acclaimed “The Gleaners and I.”
“Faces Places,” a collaboration with photographer and artist JR, saw Varda returning to her roots as a photographer while also exploring her endless fascination with the technology of art (JR turns photos into images that cover the sides of barns and train cars) and with life itself — she engages with her subjects in a personal way that reflects her love of humanity, well into her eighties.
Varda’s understanding of the changing role of film technology also played a key role behind her work to preserve both her own films and those of her late husband.
If you own the Criterion Collection Jacques Demy box set — and you really should — you have Varda to thank for the crisp restorations and remasters of such classics as “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Lola,” “The Young Girls of Rochefort” and “Donkey Skin.”
As the most well-known female figure of the Nouvelle Vague, Varda was of course a role model and inspiration to generations of women directors. Between Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino’s Hollywood efforts and Joan Micklin Silver’s indies of the 1970s, there was Varda, making influential features like “Cléo from 5 to 7” and “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t.”
And when Hollywood beckoned Demy to make “Model Shop,” the two settled in L.A. for several years, where she made the very 1969 feature “Lions Love (…and Lies)” — starring Warhol superstar Viva opposite Gerome Ragni and James Rado, the creators of “Hair” — and “Murs Murs,” a lovely documentary about Los Angeles murals.
Her fictional features show the same empathy that Varda would directly display in her documentaries. “Cléo” is about a singer waiting to get the results of a cancer biopsy, and while its heroine might appear at first to be a flibbertigibbet, Varda slowly peels back the layers and lets us know the frightened, three-dimensional woman within.
Her 1984 film “Vagabond” opens on a shot of a dead woman in a ditch and then explores other characters’ perspectives on who she was and how she wound up in such a state. The film never presumes to “explain” her; instead, Varda acknowledges that our true selves can never be fully understood if only examined through the viewpoint of others.
The same holds for Varda’s true self, then, but the Agnès Varda that her admirers have come to know through her work, and through her championing of her husband’s films (she also made “Jacquot de Nantes,” a lovely biography of his younger years), is someone with an endless curiosity about the world and understanding of the people in it. Her films unlock worlds that are new to us, and her determination to keep making them is a challenge to us to remain open to innovation and change on our own chosen paths.