When you’re taking an Intro to Film Studies class in college, there’s usually a section where you learn about the French New Wave. Beginning in the late 1950s and extending into the 1960s, the French New Wave cinema became popular at a time of immense social and political commentary in France. The filmmakers associated with this movement, usually from the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, rejected traditional French cinema and preferred to experiment with their low budget film, while also providing a comment on social and political issues.
In a basic Intro to Film Studies course, you mainly learn about the two main Cahiers du Cinéma directors: Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. However, there was a separate faction of filmmakers associated with the French New Wave, known as the Left Bank, who were just as influential.
Especially Agnès Varda.
The late Agnès Varda, who passed away in March 2019, is considered somewhat of an icon in French cinema. The 2019 Cannes Film Festival even modeled its promotional posters and materials after one of her behind-the-scenes photos. Yet somehow, many American film students aren’t as familiar with her as they are Godard and Truffaut. Even I, someone who earned a Masters in Film Studies, did not learn more about Varda until right before I started that degree (I now consider her one of my absolute favorite directors).
Varda is a jack-of-all-trades. She first started out as a photographer, but then let that instinct guide her as she began making films, often using still image frames throughout her films. One of her later works, Faces Places (2017), directly uses that intersection of film and art photography as she and an artist, JR, traverse the French countryside to paint a portrait of French life. Her works vary from short films to documentaries to feature-length fiction films. She intersected her films with a feminist and political commentary, while also being incredibly empathetic and personal. She even did a short documentary on the Black Panther party at the height of their movement. She has a love of cats, history, and even heart-shaped potatoes, showcased in her film The Gleaners and I (2000). Much like her counterparts, her style of filmmaking was experimental, especially as digital technology was popularized, but she was highly influenced by literature and considered film to be an art form.
What strikes me the most about Varda’s films are her complex characters. Her most well-known film is Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962), which focused on a singer who may or may not be on the brink of death. One of the first scenes in the film is a simple one of Cléo heading down the stairs of an apartment building after a tarot card reading predicting an early death – the camera follows her down the stairs, filming her as she figuratively puts on a different face, a different persona, for the outside world. Throughout the film, Cléo continues to waver through these masks of vulnerability and strength, subtly changing her persona to fit the situation and the people she is around. When I watched the film for the first time, I immediately felt understood – it is so common for people, especially women, to have to codeswitch depending on the situation. The situation felt so real and personal that it made Cléo seem like someone I knew. Varda’s films tend to be centered around women’s themes and heavily feature a women’s voice/point of view, something which is still rare in today’s films, let alone in the 1960s to 1980s. Varda’s complex characters expand to her later films, like Vagabond (1985), which focused on an outspoken teenager and One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), which looked at women’s agency over their own bodies. Her characters and the plots of her films would also fit in perfectly with a Women’s Studies/Women in Film college course…and yet, though I’d taken those courses, Varda isn’t mentioned.
Why isn’t Agnès Varda mentioned in the same breath as Truffaut and Godard? Why aren’t more courses focusing on her works, which were just as good (maybe even better) and wide-ranging than her colleagues? Who knows! But this is my plea for more Film Studies classes to include Varda in their curriculum. A feminist filmmaker who was one of the biggest influences in a cinema movement needs to be studied as much as her counterparts.