French film legend Agnes Varda, the only woman director to emerge from the New Wave scene in the 1960s, has died aged 90, her family said on Friday.
With her two-tone bowl haircut, Varda was seen as the arty, eccentric “grandmother” of French cinema, loved and revered for her startling originality.
“The director and artist Agnes Varda died at her home on the night of Thursday, March 29, of complications from cancer. She was surrounded by her family and friends,” the family said in a statement.
Varda worked right up to the end of her life, with a new autobiographical documentary premiering at the Berlin film festival just last month.
She won an honorary Oscar last November at 89 for her documentary “Faces Places”, which saw her ditch her walking stick for an impromptu celebratory dance with Hollywood star Angelina Jolie.
She made “Faces Places” with the hip young French street artist JR — more than half a century her junior — hopping into a van with him at the wheel to drive around France to shoot interesting people and places they came across.
The pair made an unlikely but endearing double act. With her eyesight failing but imagination undimmed, Varda at one point admits, “Every new person I meet feels like my last one.”
The film took her back to her cinematic roots, with a visit to her reclusive New Wave colleague Jean-Luc Godard, just over the border in Switzerland.
Husband and Wife Team
Varda and her late husband, director Jacques Demy, were one of the New Wave’s great double acts, with her often recording life on set and pitching in on his masterpieces like “The Young Girls of Rochefort”, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Bay of Angels”.
She made her name in 1962 with her first feature “Cleo de 5 a 7” (Cleo from 5 to 7), about a hypochondriac singer who gets increasingly worried that she has cancer while she is waiting for test results from her doctor.
But it was in her documentaries and films that mixed real-life events with fiction that Varda weaved her very particular brand of gritty poetry.
She won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival and a host of other awards for her 1985 film “Vagabond”, which retraced the life of a homeless woman who was found frozen to death in a ditch.
Her social conscience was also clear in her now classic documentary, “The Gleaners & I” (2000) – about people who comb the fields after the harvest for leftover grain and fruit, and urban gleaners who make a living from junk.
It is on the BBC’s list of the best films made since the turn of the century.
Varda has never hidden her interest in politics, making a series of documentaries in the United States and Cuba as both countries reeled from social and political revolutions, including “Black Panthers” (1968), “Hi Cubans!” (1971) and “Far From Vietnam” (1967).
Born in Belgium in 1928 to a French mother and Greek father whose family had fled Turkey, Varda changed her first name from Arlette to Agnes when she turned 18 and began her career as a photographer.
Her work often crossed over between cinema and art and her own personal story, like her documentary “Uncle Yanco” (1967) about San Francisco hippie artist Jean Varda — a relative of hers.
But some of her most poignant work focused on the three decades she spent with Demy until his untimely death in 1990 – “Jacquot de Nantes” (Jacky from Nantes), “The Beaches of Agnes” and “The World of Jacques Demy”.
Born on May 30, 1928, Varda often used her own life as the framework for her work, which brought her an honorary Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 2015 — the first female to win the coveted award.
“Her work and her life are infused with the spirit of freedom, the art of driving back boundaries, a fierce determination and a conviction that brooks no obstacles. Simply put, Varda seems capable of accomplishing everything she wants,” the Cannes festival said at the time.