Nouvelle Vague — Agnès Varda as a Pioneer of Feminism

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After the second world war, the liberation of France led to the need — both as a collective and as an individual — being able to express oneself freely in the context of art and creation. Thus, the discussion about film and its discourse coming with that was of immense relevance for many artists as well as film enthusiasts. Among them — considered some of the most valuable at that time — were the film critic André Bazin and filmmaker, film critic and writer Alexandre Astruc. The latter published an article in 1948 about the transformation of cinema which would increasingly focus on a more personal form in which the camera functioned as a pen in the hands of the director. The article “Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera as Pen” was later to be considered the beginning of the New Wave development which includes the politique des auteurs as a decisive aspect. This — first defined in 1955 by the filmmaker François Truffaut for the magazine Cahiers du cinéma — understands in particular the director, above all others, as the author of a film. An author who is adopting a specific style, characterized by recurring themes and elements. Other than before — where the recognition as creators tended to be given to screenwriters as well as producers — this perspective gave the directors a major role as the main creator. Due that they would have had more control over their work which allowed them to distance themselves from predetermined and traditional narratives. This is considered a significant impact on the view about the work as a director as well as film itself in that time.

The French New Wave itself — also known as Nouvelle Vague — describes a film movement in France emerging between the late 50s and late 60s. It was ruled by the rejection of conventional cinematic techniques, focusing on more personal and experimental storytelling. In the course of this, instead of the collective, the perspective of the individual was of central importance whereby existential themes were taken up. In the New Wave movement, realism fused with subjectivity while various avant-garde techniques were employed. This cinema also found its influence in the same called literary movement at the time which also distinguished itself from traditional forms and enriched itself with innovative style. One of the most relevant representatives of the French New Wave Cinema was the director Jean-Luc Godard who reached commercial success with his uncommon film Breathless (French: À bout de souffle) In 1960. Both, Breathless as well as The 400 Blows (French: Les quatre cents coups) in 1959 by François Truffaut — who had previously worked as a critic for the film magazine Cahiers du cinéma — drew a major influence on this film movement, which was now getting attention and being noticed all over the world. With its appearance, The 400 Blows decisively founded the Nouvelle Vague and helped it achieving its breakthrough.

The Left Bank Group

The already mentioned film magazine Cahiers du cinéma is considered weaving closely together with the development of the Nouvelle Vague. Film critics from that magazine — such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette who wanted to become filmmakers themselves — grew together to form a group known as the Young Turks (French: Jeunes Turcs) which would later be considered the core of the Nouvelle Vague. They established new structures and ideas regarding the writing, the direction and the producing of film. Under the leadership of François Truffaut, for example, the previously mentioned politique des auteurs was brought to life.

Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais and Jacques Demy in 1965

Other filmmakers shared these visions and values of the Young Turks, including Jacques Demy, Jean Rouch and Agnès Varda. To distinguish themselves from that group, an at first loose association of various filmmakers and writers called the Left Bank Group (French: Groupe Rive Gauche) was established at the beginning of the 1960s. This in particular included the directors Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Agnès Varda, all of whom initially came from the world of documentary film. The groups characterization was standing for its experimental openness and left-wing political orientation.

Agnès Varda

One woman having a lasting influence on the Nouvelle Vague was the aforementioned Agnès Varda. As one of the only known woman of the most important artistic movement of the post-war period, she enriched the film industry as a director. Through her perspective — adorned with neo-liberalist traits — she holds a life work of around 50 feature films and documentaries inherent. As daughter of a Greek father and a French mother, she was born in Brussels in 1928 and grew up there most of the time. Paris would later become the place of her work when she began studying art at the Musée du Louvre. In particular, the Rue Daguerre in which she moved into a backyard — and later was considered as her editing studio and office — was the site of her life’s work. There she was living together with her husband Jacques Demy and her children Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy.

Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy in 1965

Her Onset in the French New Wave Cinema

Initially working as a photographer, she felt the need transforming her ideas into moving images and founded a film production company called Tamaris Films. After her debut feature film La Pointe Courte (English: short point) in 1955, many more productions were to follow. Her first major success as director would be Cléo from Five to Seven (French: Cléo de 5 à 7) from 1961. A portrait of a woman — a well recognized and known singer who finds herself waiting two hours for her medical results.

In Cléo from five to seven, Varda takes us on a woman’s journey, accompanied by an initial arrogance that increasingly turns into humbleness. Varda uses unconventional and highly sensitive narratives that bring us closer to the fate as well as the perspective of Cléo. She draws a character, who feels confronted with the fear of death and thus experiences a sharper sight of the world around her as she widens up her view. As in Cléo from five to seven and many other projects, Varda particularly takes up the stories of strong women. Something very rare at a time of a male-dominated film industry. By emancipating and distancing herself from conventional cinematic rules, she gave equal importance to male and female characters within her work. Both her narrative forms and the portrayal of women or couples testify to innovation and the breaking down of outdated ideas. Back then the exposure and politicization of female experience became increasingly important and Varda was always willing to renew images rather than insist on old ones.

On set of Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), photo from IMDb ©

In her career, Varda preferred to work with amateur actors on film sets that were much more natural than embellished and over-aestheticized. She thus provided an idea for later stylistic devices of the French New Wave movement. Most of the members of this movement she met through her future husband Jacques Demy. These, for example, included Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. But Varda also distanced herself from the group around Cahiers du cinéma and instead turned to her colleagues from the Left Bank Group, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, whom she met while working on La Pointe Court.

Work and Live as a Feminist

Agnès Varda has been able to reinvent herself in her work as an artist, making use of terms and conditions of her environment. She has succeeded in telling perspectives of relevance through small stories without being instructing, exaggerated or pathetic. Her willing to experiment does not seem to have ceased, even in her later years. And this at a time that was shaped by political, social and artistic hurdles and challenges.

Varda has always openly described herself as a feminist. Her fight for equality and women’s rights can be seen in both her private life and her work. Her film One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (French: L’une chante, l’autre pas) from 1977, deals with the fight for and the right to do an abortion. A topic that still provokes moral and political controversy in our society. The film tells the story of two women, Pauline and Suzanne, the latter of whom wants to have an abortion because she cannot afford to have another child. In sympathizing with Suzanne, Pauline begins to collect money for her. At a later date, she herself will also be confronted with the question of a possible abortion. It was one of the most politically open films of Agnès Varda. In 1971, she herself signed a campaign called Le manifeste des 343, published under the title “Un appel de 343 femmes” (English: An appeal by 343 women) which advocated the decriminalization of abortion and generated various discourses.

Through her outstanding characters, Agnès Varda created a cinema that broke long-established rules and portrayed interpersonal relationships in a new way. This was the case in Le Bonheur (English: Happiness) from 1965, which deals with a kind of love triangle in which a man who is actually happily married meets and falls in love with another woman. However, he does not want to renounce on anything and believes he can live out both loves. Varda in this film is capturing different nuances of married life and love and shows that mistakes can be made without wanting to punish or condemn anyone. Through her ambivalent narration of patriarchal conditions and her humanity at the same time, she breaks the rules of conventional narratives and leaves room for new perspectives. Varda always criticized the inequalities within the film industry but did not make the fact — her being a woman — as only reason responsible for that. Rather she linked this to the high standards within the politique des auteurs itself. Nevertheless, it was not easy — especially in her early days — to receive recognition and financial support for her work. After her first feature film, she had to wait eight years to direct her second film. Indeed producers found it difficult to put their money in the hands of a woman.

Agnès Varda together with other actresses on a red carpet protest of the marginal representation of women at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018*, photo from The New York Times ©

Without being instructing, Agnès Varda succeeded in presenting new point of views and created space for relevant topics such as the fight for equality. And she did so at a time that was characterized by long-held clichés, gender regarded stereotypes and old structures as the result of patriarchy. These hurdles never stopped Varda from sharing her stories in her own way. She has received numerous awards highlighting and praising her work. Among others, she was the first woman to receive a Palme d’Honneur at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. Further in 2017, she was the first woman receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars. These facts show that, even today, we still have a long way ahead when it comes to recognizing the work of women within the industry. At the same time, Agnès Varda has shown us how to stand up for ourselves and our own values and to treat and show them with humility and in an understanding way.

At the Berlinale in February 2019, the 90-year-old Varda presented her documentary film Varda by Agnès, which was awarded with the Berlinale Camera Honorary Prize. It documents and presents her cinematic work over the last 60 years. Agnès Varda died shortly afterwards in the night of March 29. But what she leaves behind are countless stories of marvelous characters whose charm and unconventionality are touching and make people want to see things and reflect on them.

The Impact of the French New Wave Cinema

Agnès Varda’s work, like that of other directors such as Resnais, Marker, Rohmer and Godard, is closely interwoven with the character of the Nouvelle Vague and it is impossible to look at them separately. There is no doubt that the French New Wave Movement was immensely influencing as well as challenging traditional cinematic conventions and standards. With its openness for experimentation and self-expression inherent, it broadened the artist’s view of cinema, which is also reflected in contemporary work. The Nouvelle Vague thus proves that breaking old conventions and trying out new narratives create new innovative works that resonate.

*only 82 films by female directors contended for awards, compared with a total of 1645 films by male directors in the same period of time.

By Ida Hensel

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