By Christopher Sharrett.
I commented early this week on the ruthlessness of death. The occasion was my remembrance of Larry Cohen, a crucial figure of the American independent cinema. And now, we have word of the loss of Agnes Varda, a person I always thought pivotal to the European cinema. It is a commonplace that Varda was a founding mother of the French New Wave, her experiments preceding those of her male colleagues. Indeed, she made estimable films, the best of which, in my view, is Le Bonheur. She may be most remembered as the widow of the great Jacques Demy, whose visionary musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort (the bright palette of the latter seemingly impossible to achieve), I always regarded as the product of a collaboration beyond that with composer Michel Legrand. These films are, respectively, a melancholy and a thoroughly joyful dream, the musical as celebration of affection and the erotic even in its sadder moments. Did these films flow from the Demy-Varda partnership, their mutual love of cinema and the consolations of art?
After Demy’s death, Varda became the most diligent guardian of his memory, evidenced in the glorious restorations of all his films. But there is so much more. Varda’s name seems all over the cinema, not unlike Chris Marker, known as much for his generosity as his art. Varda seems synonymous with the triumphs of the French cinema – and with political art. She joined the portmanteau Far From Vietnam, one of the very few truly important films about the U.S. assault on Southeast Asia.
There is a moment in Faces Places, a late-career film that brought her name back to those who had forgotten it. The film, a trifle in my view compared to works like Cleo from 5 to 7, won good will and led to a life-achievement Oscar. The film’s importance is a moment when she visits the home of Jean-Luc Godard, who never comes to the door. There is no irony here. The eccentric spiritual father of the New Wave spurns the person equally responsible for the creation of this crucial movement, who had no need or inclination toward postures – she was the person in the background to an extent, to all except those aware of what she nurtured.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.