Agnès Varda: celebrating the humanism of an outstanding filmmaker

The year 2019 will always be etched in many memories as ‘That Year’. It has the dubious distinction of being remembered alongside a global pandemic. And if all that that entailed wasn’t enough, the year also took away from us some beloved arts personalities. Actors such as Anna Karina and Peter Fonda, writers such as Toni Morrison and a once-in-a-generation filmmaker, Agnès Varda.

On 29th March 2019, Varda bid adieu to this world. In doing so, she left behind a lasting film legacy that would inspire generations of filmmakers to come. Our memory can have a recency bias, so it’s easy to take for granted the lasting impact her style and the French New Wave movement have had on the cinema we consume today. From being the forerunner of the post-modern docufiction style to incorporating the feminist gaze and pushing formalist conventions in her narrative, Varda’s work defied genre expectations to create a new kind of visual grammar. You can even see the roots of hyper surrealism and symmetrical obsession associated with Wes Anderson in Varda’s short Uncle Yanco way back in 1968.

No matter if you want to dip your toes into the world of Varda for the first time or have been a long time Varda convert, the French Connections collection at SBS on Demand has you covered.


La Pointe Courte (1956)

At just under 80 minutes, Varda’s debut feature is astonishing in its self-assuredness. It’s important to note that La Pointe Courte pre-dates the French New Wave Movement, in the sense that much of the visual style and experimentation that would become characteristic of the Cahiers du Cinéma cohort comes after Varda’s debut film. You can argue that Varda kickstarts the French New Wave and her first film is an important cinematic landmark marking a change in visual language on celluloid.

Inspired by the William Faulkner’s 1939 novel ‘The Wild Palms [If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem]’, the film follows a married couple Lui and Elle (played by Phillipe Noiret and Silvia Monfort) as they try to work through their marital troubles in a small town in the south of France. The film is impressionistic and uses abstractions to mirror the inner turmoil of the protagonists juxtaposed against the larger troubles that the town is experiencing. Varda’s love for still photography and photojournalism are strongly evident here.

Streaming now at SBS On Demand:

Cleo From 5 to 7 (1961)

If I had to make a list (at gunpoint) of films you must see before you die, then Cleo From 5 to 7 would be an automatic shoe-in. It’s hard to overstate the lasting impression this film has had on cinematic culture. Think breaking the fourth wall in Fleabag was cool? Well, Cleo From 5 to 7 did that in 1961. What about jump cuts to signify a disorienting feeling of time passing by? It’s Cleo again. What about using real-time narration as federal agent Jack Bauer goes against the clock to save the world in the tv series 24? Yep, you guessed it, already done in Cleo.

The film follows a self-absorbed pop star Cleo (played by Corinne Marchand), who is forced to re-evaluate her life and how others perceive her as she awaits the final results of a possible cancer diagnosis. Divided into 12 chapters, the various events occuring on screen are moments in time that happen to Cleo as she roams the Parisian streets between the hours of 5 and 6.30 PM. A strong feminist aesthetic permeates the film, as Cleo’s sense of vanity is reinforced by those around her, and Varda’s subtle commentary implies that for the feminist project to be successful, entire social structures would need to be radically re-examined and reimagined.

Streaming now at SBS On Demand:

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977)

Arguably, the most tender, heartwarming and affirming film that Varda made in her illustrious career. If you’re unfamiliar with Varda’s cinematic style and the themes she likes to revisit, this is the film I’d recommend you start with to get acquainted. It’s interesting to note that the film, described by Varda herself as a “feminist musical, was actually panned by critics upon its initial release when it opened at the 1977 New York Film Festival.

The initial critical reception of the film hasn’t stopped it from becoming a cult favourite among movie-goers, though. The film follows two friends at different stages of their lives, Pauline and Suzanne (played by Valérie Mairesse and Thérèse Liotard), over the course of 14 years of their blossoming friendship and sisterhood against the backdrop of abortion rights and the advent of the Women’s Movement in France during the 1970s. You can notice the docufiction influences at play here – the film is as much about charting the progress of women’s rights in France at a given point in history as much as it’s about the lives of our two protagonists. Making this film a musical gives it a sense of warmth and lightness of touch usually associated with Varda’s longtime partner Jacques Demy and his musicals such as The Young Girls of Rochefortand The Umbrellas of Cherbourg(both films are also available to watch via the French Connections collection).

Streaming now at SBS On Demand:

Vagabond (1985)

One of my absolute favourite Varda films is also one of her more challenging and bleaker works. Vagabond is a film where Varda’s penchant toward docufiction and photography roots are front and centre and her feminist critique of social structures that subjugate and oppress women overt and obvious.

A young drifter called Mona (a career-defining performance by Sandrine Bonnaire) is found frozen to death in a ditch in the opening frames of the film. Varda uses this bleak endpoint to mount an investigation as to what might’ve lead to her untimely demise, relying mostly on flashbacks and interviews with characters who claim to have known our protagonist. The film constantly plays with our perception of what’s real and what’s not, a conundrum that’s ever more pronounced given the fact that Varda’s cast mostly consists of other non-professional actors.

Streaming now at SBS On Demand:

Jane B. for Agnès V. (1987)

One of the most fascinating things about Varda was that she was a profoundly interesting subject herself whenever she chose to turn the camera around to frame her own personality as both the subject and the object of discussion. And this is precisely what happens in Jane B. for Agnès V. The film is a portrait of Jane Birkin’s life as a singer, actress and fellow feminist and came about after Birkin was incredibly moved by Varda’s previous film, Vagabond. Interestingly, even though the primary subject of this film is Birkin, the film is very much about Varda’s philosophy of wanting to create a different kind of visual style through her cinema, her take on the ethics of documentary filmmaking and what feminism means to her. 

Watch this film to get an insight into why Varda’s legacy shall endure, as she plays around with form, raises ethical questions about the ego of a filmmaker, and her incredible ability to humanise anyone who catches her cinematic eye. 

Streaming now at SBS On Demand:

You can also watch another Agnès Varda film, Lions Love (…And Lies), at SBS On Demand, or explore more French filmmaking in the French New Wave and French Connections collections. 

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