On Tuesday evening every audience member of the sold out NFT1 screen at the BFI Southbank rose to give 90-year-old Agnès Varda a standing ovation. With astonishing humility, she responded with “I’m so glad there are so many of you. I’m impressed that I’m just coming saying things and you come to listen to me.”
For decades Agnès Varda has been confined to the margins of film history while her French New Wave contemporaries like Godard and Truffaut appear on every film studies syllabus. No more. In the past year, Faces Places screened at Cannes, she received an honorary Academy Award, protested the lack of female directors represented at Cannes, and now is celebrated by a retrospective at the BFI.
Billed as “Agnès Varda in Conversation”, the audience was, in fact, treated to a masterclass by Varda followed by a short Q + A. Shuffling her pages of notes she said, “I have so many pieces of paper because the writing is large. Don’t worry, it’s not a four- hour talk.” She spoke with such insight, intelligence and wit that the audience would happily have listened for four hours and more. In typically rule-breaking fashion, Varda didn’t simply take us through her films chronically; instead, she jumped between decades, creating a non-linear scrapbook of memories that still highlighted the reoccurring elements that define her style and have cemented her as a feminist filmmaker.
Beginning with an extract from her 1967 short Uncle Yanco, she then took us back to 1962 and Cléo from 5 to 7. Told in real time, Cléo is the story of a beautiful young singer anxiously awaiting the results of a medical test that will determine if she has cancer. Varda discussed the film’s bold portrayal of time and the act of waiting: “Time, when you wait, is endless, and when you’re having fun, it flies. Objective time and subjective time are in different categories – I wanted to capture both.” She also highlighted the interweaving of fiction and documentary (the street entertainer swallowing frogs was real) and Cléo as a female protagonist being observed, but then becoming the observer, gaining agency and power. All these features reoccur in Varda’s work, but this is where her feminism first became clear and perhaps explains why Cléo is one of her best-loved films. Varda remarked that she knew of three women who had been named after the eponymous Cléo.
After showing a clip from her documentary short Black Panthers, in which a black woman discusses natural hair, Varda said, “I was impressed by their energy, their determination to be themselves, beautiful black women.” She became a more explicitly political and radical feminist filmmaker in the 1970s, portraying the French women’s movement in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. She spoke about the context of making the film, emphasising the importance of the fight for the decriminalisation of abortion. She mentioned signing the Manifesto of the 343 which stated that these 343 women had had abortions despite its illegality. “My body is mine,” sings feminist activist Pomme in the clip Varda selected, which of course retains its relevance today. Varda spoke with fondness about the collaborative experience, saying that she wanted to “help women say what they don’t dare to say.” In Vagabond, Varda continued to elevate unheard voices, inspired by the sudden appearance of female hitchhikers on the road. Mona, a lone female drifter who is sexually assaulted on the road, tragically freezes to death. Masculine society is repulsed by her total freedom.
As the new millennium began, Varda felt freer herself with the advent of digital filmmaking. Her 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I examines different types of ‘gleaning’, or picking up and using what is unwanted, whether misshapen crops or dumped rubbish. She observed that “the new little digital cameras allowed me to approach people – people who were struggling, people with difficulties – without a crew.” Self-portraiture has always been a feature of her work, but she reexamined herself in The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, and most recently Faces Places. Varda showed her well-known self-portrait where she stands in front of the Bellini painting Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo. “The artist can feel small and modest”, she said, “but also someone who can stand by herself.”
At the end of Varda’s lecture, there was no doubt that she could stand by herself. Varda spoke about her films with passion and humour, keeping the audience enraptured and laughing. On Black Panthers, she gained access to a rally to free Huey Newton by claiming she was with French television and giving them a big smile. Russian audiences scoffed at the wintry weather portrayed in Vagabond, while she demanded that another film lend her their crane while she was shooting Jacquot de Nantes. When asked about herself specifically as a female filmmaker she said, “I didn’t want to be a woman who makes films, I wanted to invent cinema and be proud of being a woman.” As playful, funny, yet deeply thoughtful as ever, Varda was utterly brilliant company. Reiterating her astonishment that so many people came to hear her speak rather than to see a film she said, “When it’s a film it’s a show, I hope I’m slightly a show,” to laughter and more applause.
Check out BFI’s website to learn more about Agnès Varda: Vision of an Artist