French New Wave film pioneer Agnes Varda dead at 90
PARIS, March 30, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – French film legend Agnes Varda, the only
woman director to emerge from the so-called New Wave scene in the 1960s, has
died aged 90 after a battle with cancer, her family said Friday.
With her two-tone bowl haircut, Varda was seen as the arty, eccentric
“grandmother” of French cinema and tributes poured in for the highly-
political artist revered for her originality.
Varda died overnight at home “of complications from cancer. She was
surrounded by her family and friends,” the family said in a statement.
Varda worked right up to the end of her life, with a new autobiographical
documentary premiering at the Berlin film festival just last month. She was
still giving media interviews last weekend at an exhibition of her artworks.
“She was so far ahead of everyone else; she was the first to make films
that influenced the New Wave” — a form of European art cinema, French
director Claude Lelouch told AFP. “She always chose the right battles.”
Madonna tweeted a picture of herself with Varda in Paris in December 2015,
Varda’s head resting on the singer’s shoulder.
“Farewell to one of my favorite filmmakers – Agnes Varda always a curious,
creative, child-like spirit to the last moment. We will miss you!!”
“Selma” director Ava DuVernay also tweeted a picture of herself with the
“Merci, Agnes. For your films. For your passion. For your light. It shines
on,” she wrote.
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed a “tremendous filmmaker,
photographer and visual artist who will be terribly missed in the French
Last November, Varda won an honorary Oscar at age 89 for her documentary
“Faces Places”, which saw her ditch her walking stick during the ceremony for
an impromptu celebratory dance with Hollywood star Angelina Jolie.
With her eyesight failing but imagination undimmed, Varda admits at one
point during the film that “every new person I meet feels like my last one.”
Her death came just before she was to inaugurate a show of her whimsical
art installations at the Chaumont-sur-Loire castle in the central Loire
valley of France on Saturday. – Husband and wife team –
Varda and her late husband, director Jacques Demy, were one of the New
Wave’s great double acts, with her pitching in on his masterpieces like “The
Young Girls of Rochefort”, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Bay of Angels”.
She made her name in 1962 with her first feature “Cleo de 5 a 7” (Cleo from
5 to 7), about a hypochondriac singer who gets increasingly worried that she
has cancer while she is waiting for test results from her doctor.
But it was in her documentaries and films that mixed real-life events with
fiction that Varda weaved her very particular brand of gritty poetry.
She won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival and a host of other
awards for her 1985 film “Vagabond”, which retraced the life of a homeless
woman found frozen to death in a ditch.
Her social conscience was also clear in the now classic documentary, “The
Gleaners & I” (2000) — about people who comb the fields after the harvest
for leftover grain and fruit, and urban gleaners who make a living from junk.
It is on the BBC’s list of the best films made since the turn of the
Varda never hid her interest in politics, making a series of documentaries
in the United States and Cuba as both countries reeled from social and
political revolutions, including “Black Panthers” (1968), “Hi Cubans!” (1971)
and “Far From Vietnam” (1967).
Born in Belgium in 1928 to a French mother and Greek father whose family
had fled Turkey, Varda changed her first name from Arlette to Agnes when she
turned 18 and began her career as a photographer.
Her work often crossed over between cinema and art and her own personal
story, like her documentary “Uncle Yanco” (1967) about San Francisco hippie
artist Jean Varda — a relative of hers.
Some of her most poignant work focused on the three decades she spent with
Demy until his untimely death in 1990 — “Jacquot de Nantes” (Jacky from
Nantes), “The Beaches of Agnes” and “The World of Jacques Demy”.
Varda often used her own life as the framework for her art, which brought
her an honorary Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 2015 — the first
time a woman won the coveted award.
“Her work and her life are infused with the spirit of freedom, the art of
driving back boundaries, a fierce determination and a conviction that brooks
no obstacles,” the Cannes festival said at the time.