Icon: Agnès Varda
Words by Megan Carnegie
Supposedly Agnès Varda had seen only one film – 'Citizen Kane' – before she made her directorial debut with ‘La Pointe Courte’ in 1956. Set against the backdrop of Sète, a small fishing village where she spent her teens, it was the first film to play with chronology, an effect which became the central tenet of the nouvelle vague movement. Varda was the solitary female voice in an all-male band of French filmmakers and at the age of thirty, she was christened the “Grandmother of the New Wave”. This title, she insists, is down to an old head on young shoulders, rather than any masculine attempt to belittle her. But being the ‘token’ woman in an ultra-macho sphere granted her the freedom and fearlessness to carve out her unique six-decade career, in which she made over fifty films - and continues to do so.
While aspects of Varda seem timeless, like the pudding-bowl haircut she insisted on aged 19 (purely because it was ‘not fashionable’), she is constantly making herself anew. She was a slashie before the term existed, a thousand directors in one, moving effortlessly between political archive film, shorts, documentaries, photography and art installations. Her first, Patatutopia, featured footage of misshapen, decaying potatoes and naturally, Varda greeted guests dressed as a potato for the private view. ‘Mamita Punk,’ as her grandchildren call her, has never taken herself too seriously, and recommends all women do the same.
What I most admire about Varda is how she finds inspiration and beauty in what others might dismiss as strange, ugly or commonplace. Her work magnifies the lives of those living in the margins of society; whether they are Californian hippies (Lions, Love), dumpster divers (‘The Gleaners and I’), LA mural artists (Murs, Murs) or Le Havre dockworkers’ wives (Faces, Places), Varda treats each of her subjects with the humility and enthusiasm of dear friends. Always open to the world’s offerings, in turn she opens herself up for the world; focusing the camera on the signs of her own aging - the liver spots on her hands or the graying of her hair, as well as her grotto-like apartment (and its cats) on rue Daguerre, where she has lived and worked since 1951. This soon-to-be nonagenarian has my heart, not just for her lifelong dedication to swimming against the tide, but her outlook. Life, according to Agnès Varda, is muddled, satisfying and beautiful, in ways you least expect.
Megan Carnegie is a freelance journalist and writer based in East London. In her spare time, she fantasises about moving back to her surrogate city Paris and owning multiple cats, à la Agnès.