“…stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world.”
–Appalachian poet and novelist Dorothy Allison
I can thank my Dad for cultivating my love for French cinema during my early teenhood. He would load a USB drive full of films for me to occupy my lazy summers in Virginia. It was like traveling.
During my first year in college, I took a French film course with an amazing professor. These class periods included my friend Celine and me reliving the experience of seeing Call Me By Your Name, our class unraveling challenging texts, and my growing love for Agnès Varda, a French filmmaker who played a prominent role in creating the style of the French New Wave.
Like most directors in France at the time, she practiced “auteur theory,” in which the director is main and most central creative force driving the project and image. She even created her own production company, Ciné-Tamaris, and coined the word “cinécriture,” which means “writing on film.”
Her most well-known films include Cléo from 5 to 7, Vagabond (both already my faves), The Gleaners and I, Le Bonheur, and La Pointe Courte.
Varda was an avid activist. Civil rights and feminism echoed throughout her films. They were common threads in many of her short documentaries.
Black Panthers (1968). See also: Women Reply (1997), Salut Les Cubains (1963)
In the same vein, many of her documentaries were about her personal life or observations.
Her husband, Jacques Demy, also directed films, such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Ladies of Rochefort (both amazing). Somewhere on YouTube there’s a video of Demy putting on a sweater, caught on camera by Varda. They are the cutest and coolest.
Her most recent work, Faces Places, received six major nominations and won four awards. The documentary follows her and the muralist JR on a road trip, creating grand-scale murals to appreciate the people they meet on the way. Such personalities include a goat farmer, a mailman, and the wives of dockworkers.
What I love most about Varda’s style is how involved she makes the viewer by often leaving the camera completely still or staging the image so that it’s so beautiful to look at.
Speaking of style, Agnès Varda serves the best looks, whether she’s dressed as a potato or in cardboard cut-out form (yes, she sent a series of cardboard cut-outs to the Oscars Nominees Lunch).
Her voice and style helped elevate the female point-of-view in French cinema. She made the discourse more inclusive while still keeping a critical eye.
Through film and the way it’s shot, we as viewers can identify with certain characters. At the time, mainstream films were dominated by male-driven motives, forming what film critic Laura Mulvey called the “male gaze.”
Varda’s films featured women protagonists who were both unconventional and ultimately unapologetic.
Varda exposed audiences to new perspectives and narratives. But it doesn’t stop there.
Film becomes more inclusive when filmmakers challenge its history. In “The Oppositional Gaze,” bell hooks explores the oversimplified representation of black people by white supremacist institutions and artists. She also calls for more discourse around black female spectatorship.
The need for representation in film and storytelling continues to be crucial. It makes the movie-watching experience all the more beautiful, tender, and everlasting. ♦
Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)