Top 5 Movies by Agnes Varda

Top 5 Movies by Agnes Varda

Nicknamed “the grandmother of the New Wave” while still in her early 30s, the filmmaker, photographer and artist Agnès Varda turned 81 this year. A selection of her best work:


Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès), 2008
Varda’s latest film is a remarkable example of what she calls “subjective documentary”. We follow young, then not-so-young Agnès from her beginnings as a young photography student to the famous figure she is today; from her first film—already revealing her trademark experimental style—to her recent art exhibit at the Cartier Foundation in Paris; from her personal joys and sorrows to her professional pleasures and hardships, many times intricately mixed. The film is full of laughter and tears, and when Varda speaks about those close to her who have died—among them friends Jean Vilar and Gérard Philipe and, of course, her husband Jacques Demy—the emotion is overwhelming. The film ends with her friends throwing a birthday party and bringing her 80 brooms—in France the expression 80 balais, literally “80 brooms,” means 80 years. Les Plages d’Agnès won the César for Best Documentary in 2009 and will be released in the US this summer.


Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7), 1962
Does beautiful young singer Cléo (Corinne Marchand) have a fatal disease? During the two hours of suspense as she awaits the results of medical tests, she roams through Paris. She visits a fortune-teller, buys a hat, chats with her songwriters, encounters her indifferent boyfriend and finally meets another soul confronting the possibility of death: a young soldier (Antoine Bourseiller) about to leave for the war in Algeria. With its black-and-white documentary look, Cléo was Varda’s breakout film and a landmark of the Nouvelle Vague.

L’Une Chante, l’Autre Pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t), 1977
The film follows two very different women who each find freedom and happiness during the 1960s and ’70s, the height of the feminist movement in France. Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) is the rebel, a nomadic singer who lives a carefree life; quiet Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) fights the system by working at a family planning clinic. Varda was very involved in the feminist movement and conveys the optimistic mood of the period as if we were there, experiencing that historic era with her characters. 

Sans Toit Ni Loi (Vagabond), 1985
Perhaps Varda’s most famous and critically acclaimed film on this side of the Atlantic, Sans Toit Ni Loi stars a young Sandrine Bonnaire (in a magnificent César-winning performance) as Mona, an itinerant homeless woman. After Mona is found dead in a field one winter morning, those who met her in the weeks preceding her death try to understand who she was. Her motivations remain mysterious, but she seems to have been in search of absolute freedom, rejecting society and civilization and drifting toward self-destruction. The film, one of Varda’s harshest and most pessimistic, won the Golden Lion at the 1985 Venice Film Festival.

Jacquot de Nantes (Jacquot), 1991
Varda’s tribute to her husband of many years, legendary filmmaker Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort), is a fictional reconstruction of his childhood in his beloved Nantes. We follow Jacquot—an affectionate nickname for Jacques—during three distinct periods of his childhood, as he discovers and pursues his passion for cinema. The fictional scenes are interspersed with poignant contemporary footage of Demy, who was already terminally ill and died a few days after the end of the shooting.

La Pointe Courte 1954. Romance/drama/documentary.
Le Bonheur (Happiness), 1965. Drama.
Les Créatures (The Creatures), 1966. Drama.
Mur Murs (Mural Murals), 1981. Documentary.
Jane B. par Agnès V. (Jane B. by Agnes V.), 1988. Fantasy.
Les Demoiselles Ont Eu 25 Ans (The Young Girls Turn 25), 1993. Documentary.
L’Univers de Jacques Demy (The World of Jacques Demy), 1995. Documentary.
Les Cent et Une Nuits de Simon Cinéma (A Hundred and One Nights), 1995. Comedy.
Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (The Gleaners & I), 2000. Documentary.

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Originally published in the June 2009 issue of France Today

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