“Only a woman could dare to make this film”: Remembering Agnès Varda


Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

(230727) Film director Agnes Varda. (Photo by Micheline PELLETIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

French filmmaker Agnès Varda once said that “I didn’t see myself as a woman doing film but as a radical film-maker who was a woman.” An icon of France and one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Varda passed away two years ago this month. The loss of such a radical figure even years later can still be felt today. 

Filmmaker, photographer, artist and activist, Varda was often called the “Grandmother of the French New Wave”, if only because she was the sole female filmmaker in that relatively niche genre. Varda’s influence lasted long after the dwindling of that movement, though, giving way to an artist whose impact went far beyond the confines of 60s rebellion and French filmmaking. 

It’s an understatement to call Varda a visionary. She was a true empath who used her camera to capture people rarely seen on film, and often through the most nontraditional viewpoints. Looking is a major interest of Varda’s, probably best shown in  how she captures the titular Cleo in her film ‘Cleo from 5 to 7’. 

‘Cleo’, arguably Varda’s most famous film, captures 90 minutes in the life of a musical star as she awaits the results of a cancer diagnosis. Cleo, played with immaculate sensitivity by Corrine Marchand, puts quite a bit of her self-worth in her youth and good looks. Real Parisians stare at Cleo as she anxiously wanders the streets, and her reflection never seems to be far behind. We, the audience, watch Cleo as much as others do, and must wonder what her fixation on her reflection truly means. Is it vanity? Is it an inability to escape being looked at when you’re a woman? Or is it mortality forcing one to see themselves anew? 

Varda’s camera lingers on Cleo in a meditative trance. Her camera swings around Cleo in clothing stores and coffee shops, obsessed with how she reacts to a world that might soon be gone. The film is photographed purposefully in gorgeous yet clearly pessimistic black and white, coloring in Cleo’s disparaging outlook. 

Varda also shoots ‘Cleo’ in real time, adding onto the bracing attentiveness one develops when they realize nothing is forever. Death is ugly and taboo yet still a part of aging. No one really thinks about it until it is right in front of you, which is part of Cleo’s internal conflict. What happens when you’re the pinnacle of beauty, youth and success, and you’re told that all of that could be gone in 90 minutes? 

For Cleo, it takes a complete stranger – a soldier – to help her assess what a positive cancer result might mean. This solder, Antoine, has seen more death than Cleo can probably imagine, and so helps her develop a new outlook on death. Just like Cleo, Antoine is about to come face to face with what might be a short-lived life, as he is about to leave Paris for the Algerian War. However, in contrast with Cleo’s despondent fatalism, Antoine sows his fears in stoicism. He values the pleasures of daily living above all else, reveling in conversations and walks in the park. It takes no more than 20 minutes with Antoine for Cleo to stop fearing the future and start relishing in the present. 

Yet Cleo still must reckon with her status and looks, and how that affects her as a woman. Cleo is constantly ogled by passersby in the film, yet they neglect to listen to her on a jukebox. When Cleo puts on one of her own songs in a crowded coffee house, no one cares. If anything, they are irritated by this song interrupting their conversations. Here, Varda makes a statement on how the image of a woman almost always trumps anything else revolving around femininity. It’s a devastating yet brutally honest statement, and one unheard of in a major film at that time. 

Three years later, Varda went from ‘Cleo’s’ bleak black and white, fatalist view of the world to a colorful, impressionist daydream of a film named ‘Le Bonheur’. ‘Le Bonheur’, written and directed by Varda in one summer, shows how men ruin the lives of those around them without a care, or even an understanding, of what consequences it may lead to. 

‘Le Bonheur’ follows François, a woodworker who lives an idyllic life in the French countryside with his wife, Therese, and their two kids. ‘Bonheur’ means happy in French, and the world that François lives in is of pure joy. The aesthetic is that of tinted pastels, beautiful people and blooming flowers, all accompanied by the serene music of Mozart. 

But this serenity doesn’t last long. François almost unwittingly starts an affair with a younger woman, Émilie, who uncannily resembles Therese. Yet he does not believe he is being a dishonest, destructive husband in having this affair. Instead, François sees his affair simply as another form of happiness. Why feel guilty about being happy? 

Life goes on for François, and he relishes in his double lives. For an hour of this 80 minute film, the audience wonders if this is all merely celebrating François’s actions. That the cultural revolution of the 60s, especially its sexual viewpoints, are being fully praised instead of critiqued. 

But then François takes his family to the woods for another picnic, one that parallels the introduction to our picture-perfect family. And then, tragedy strikes. For five minutes, the entire tone of the picture changes. The colors become dreary and muted, the music sobs gently and François’s smile leaves his face for the first time. 

And then, in a masterstroke by Varda, ‘Le Bonheur’ goes back to its familiar, joyous fantasy world. Now the film’s entire presentation, from its mise-en-scène to its characters to its musical choices, mean something else entirely. Nothing changes, but everything does. There is still so much happiness in the very last frame, and yet the audience is left screaming in shock. 

‘Le Bonheur’s’ tagline claims that “Only a woman could dare to make this film.” But, really, only Varda herself could make something as shocking, provocative, beautiful and entertaining as ‘Le Bonheur’. Agnès Varda’s insight throughout all of her films was truly unique and sorely missed.