The official poster of this year’s Cannes film festival will be a photograph of Agnès Varda, the pioneering French film director, photographer and artist, considered by many the “mother of the French New Wave” film movement in the 1950s and 1960s, who passed away on March 29 at the age of 90. The photograph of Varda – perched high on her director’s pyramid in the glowing sunlight, in a lovely metaphor for this daring, risk-taking filmmaker – dates back to August 1954, in the Pointe Courte neighborhood of Sète, in the South of France, where Varda – then a young stills photographer from Jean Vilar’s Théâtre National Populaire – was making her first feature film, a portrait of a troubled marriage juxtaposed with images of life in this modest fishing village made on a shoestring budget. Part fiction, part documentary, featuring both professional and amateur actors, the film, whose complex narrative structure is inspired by William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, was presented in Cannes in 1955 and described by film critic Georges Sadoul as “the first film of the Nouvelle Vague.”
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Varda’s second feature and perhaps her best-known, depicts two hours in the life of a beautiful nightclub singer waiting for the results of a biopsy. Following works include the musical One Sings, the Other Doesn’t in 1977, Vagabond in 1985, which won the Golden Lion in Venice; and Kung-Fu Master in 1988, which explored generational divides through a fictional tale of a forty-year-old divorcée who falls in love with her daughter’s fourteen-year-old classmate. Over the years, she also treated subjects ranging from abortion rights for French women to the Black Panthers movement, from class alienation to her marriage to Jacques Demy, the French director of musical films, from gleaning potatoes to cats.
Varda fully entered the art world in 2003, when she participated in the Venice Biennale (she arrived dressed as a potato, a reference to her 2001 documentary The Gleaners and I). In 2017, she became the first female director to receive an honorary Oscar, and in 2018, her documentary Faces Places, a collaborative project with French artist JR on the heroism of daily life, was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Her final film was Varda by Agnès, an autobiographical work. Thirteen times presented in the Official Selection at Cannes, she also served as a member of the jury in 2005 and then president of the Caméra d’or jury in 2013. Upon receiving an honorary Palme d’or prize in 2015, she spoke about “resilience and endurance, more than honor” and dedicated her award “to all the brave and inventive filmmakers, those who create original cinema, whether it’s fiction or documentary, who are not in the limelight but who nonetheless carry on.”