When you think about the French New Wave, you think of a few key directors: Jean Luc-Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol… etc. etc.
It’s very rare that you hear the name Agnès Varda included, which is shameful considering the monumental work she contributed to cinema and the genre she helped mold. Due to being a female director, her contributions and successes have been minimalized and pushed to the side so that her male counterparts can take center stage. As much as I love Truffaut, I can’t say that anything he did in Jules et Jim is better than what Varda did in Cléo from 5 to 7, and as much as the names listed above have accomplished, very few films have managed to match the dreamlike vibrancy of Le bonheur. This is why this week I’m breaking my structure a bit and talking about these two films and her influence, and why it is that she’s often looked at as an afterthought in the film world.
I watched these two films in quick procession and I can hardly wrap my head around how vastly different they are. Cléo from 5 to 7 tells the story of a woman who is waiting for news from the doctor, believing she’ll be told she has stomach cancer. She spends her hours dabbling in frivolity, talking with suitors and fellow musicians, meeting up with an old friend and finally encountering a stranger who opens up new possibilities in her life. This is all her story, however, and it’s shot with impeccable delicacy. Despite other characters in the film looking down at her lavish lifestyle and vanity, we’re never lead to believe that we should. She’s being ridiculous in the face of a possible terminal illness.
It’s when you juxtapose the black and white, introspective nature of Cléo from 5 to 7 with the pallet of colors and emotions of Le bonheur that you realize the genius of Varda. The latter is a film about a man in a happy marriage who adores his doting and self-sufficient wife along with their two kids. Still, he’s drawn to another woman with whom he begins an affair, and does so with very little conflict or self-doubt. In his mind he’s simply doing what makes him happy, and that’s what life should be about: the big and little pleasures. The story unravels to such a point that the overall message turns into one that says, you can’t have it all in life and when you try to, you lose something in return – a somber note to end on with how deceptively beautiful the film is. Varda poses her characters with grace and ease, painting them as human beings: flawed, penetrable and nuanced, but she does so quietly.
Both of these films allow outlooks that take their time. There are no rushed conclusions or revelations, no character changes to such an extreme extent – it’s a natural, subtle growth that happens over the course of the film.
All of which makes Varda’s lack of recognition in the French New Wave era so puzzling. Film fanatics will know who she is, but will they name her when people ask for a film to watch from that era of movie-making? Well, like most art, women visionaries are never given the spotlight they deserve. Look around today and see: who are the ones listed as contemporary auteurs? Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Tim Burton would be named without a second’s thought, but what about Sofia Coppola, who also has a distinct style that she calls her own? When people are naming directors they wish could direct films in their favorite franchises, it’s always men who are named, but how amazing would it be to see Lynn Shelton’s version of The Giver? Or what if Jane Campion were directing the next Marvel movie? Or Sarah Polley’s version of The Hunger Games? After last year’s groundbreaking Wadjda you’d think Haifaa al-mansour would be the hot ticket director to call upon for coming-of-age stories. Move aside Cameron Crowe!
Agnès Varda is just one of the many names in film history that doesn’t receive due recognition because of her sex.