Agnès Varda is one of the most successful women directors today. With a career spanning seven decades, she is credited with making the first film of the French New Wave, before Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, or any of the other men who came to characterize the revolutionary movement. But despite the acclaim, she’s not taken as seriously as her male counterparts. She is objectified, memeified, rendered into an innocuous grandmother figure (despite being only two years older than Godard; though she herself has mocked the title, commenting “When I was 30 years old they called me ‘grandmother.’ I started to get old at an early age.”). She becomes reduced to a cute quirkiness, easily rendered into a fun object by the use of her cardboard cut-out. She is more the fun old lady (where we may focus on a lovely Instagram or a plethora of cute film celebrity encounters) than one of the great and consistent innovators of cinema history.
When we objectify Agnès Varda as a harmless granny, we lose perspective of her work. Her latest film, Faces Places (Visages Villages), is one which can be characterized as more easy than her others, with its focus on friendship, connection, and lighthearted adventure — but her work overall is based on deep political considerations, with expressions of anger and grief as much as stylistic exuberance. They are the deliberate productions of someone whose career spans beyond filmmaking to photography, installation, and production.
In Rachel D. DeRoo’s new book, Agnès Varda between Film, Photography and Art, we get a look at Varda’s work beyond popular representations of her. The book opens poignantly with an example of the use of Varda’s 1962 film, Cléo de 5 à 7, in the 2015 Cannes festival where she was awarded the Palme d’honneur. In the film, the titular Cléo (Corinne Marchand), sheds the restrictive layers of the image others have imbued her with, as she comes into her own during descent into illness, but DeRoo notes how the image selected by the Cannes film festival seems to be ignorant of the film’s content.
Using a still which depicts Cléo near the start of the film, before she is able to become her own person and lose the trappings of glamour which she is forced into, Cannes goes for iconic beauty over actual meaning. DeRoo convincingly argues that this is simply what frequently happens to Varda. Where Cléo is objectified as a beauty object despite being a character in a film which challenges that idea, Varda is objectified as “female director”, given retroactive awards (the Palme d’honneur is awarded to directors who had not otherwise won in the Cannes competitions), her films misread, and herself seen as a creator of pretty and amusing pictures but not necessarily ones of intelligence, resistance, or socio-political value.
Rectifying this, DeRoo provides analysis of a selection of Varda’s films, looking to both her better known ones as well as the more obscure. She attempts to provide as much range as a short book could provide, and successfully spans Varda’s career, moving from her early to late films, fiction to documentary.
While analysis at times lacks innovation, seeming too obvious or already spoken, the value lies in the contemporary circumstances which add life to the context of the films, as well as her diligence in covering not just the iconic images that we’ve all seen. But in particular, it is DeRoo’s look to Agnès Varda’s installation work, as well as her production company, Ciné Tamaris. With a chapter on Varda’s 2006 installation, L’Ile et Elle, a work about the grief of widows living on an island that Varda herself frequented with her late husband Jacques Demy, we get to access a piece much less available than her more famous films, with discussions of its meaning to Varda’s oeuvre. The final chapter, on the DVD set for Les Plages d’Agnès provides an interesting look at Varda’s own production and promotion, moving beyond the film analysis of the rest of the book and balancing out the portrait of Varda as not just a filmmaker (or film figure) but as a total artist.
To say that DeRoo’s work is not always the most original does not diminish its necessity. With a clear project of uplifting Varda beyond her reduction as lovely grandma to her rightful position of great artist, DeRoo is a success, adding to the conversation that we must remember to take Agnès Varda seriously.