Written by Moira Sullivan
This article is part of a double feature on the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Please also check out Moira Sullivan’s review of the festival.
At the 20th anniversary of the Créteil International Women’s Film Festival in 1999, a unique film was screened. Lion’s Love was made in America in 1969 and featured Jim Rado, Jerry Ragni, filmmaker Shirley Clarke, and Andy Warhol’s star, the super model Viva. The fun loving inspirational script was written during the time of the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and is among many things a nostalgic look at the 1960s and a subtle critique of the televised violence characteristic of the time. This was one of Agnès Varda’s most commercial films.
For the past 10 years, Varda, after whom this agnès films is named, has worked in the plastic arts. “People don’t really know what I have been doing for the last 10 years and will continue to do,” said Varda during a May 24th interview. Agnès Varda who received an “Honorary Palme” at the closing ceremony of this year’s festival is the first woman selected for this distinction. The honor has only been given to Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, and Bernardo Bertolucci and can be regarded as a Lifetime Achievement award. “Agnès is very faithful to Cannes and has presented shorts and feature films,” said Cannes president Thierry Frémaux. “The award is a form of recognition that we wanted to express.”
The Honorary Palme was presented to her by Jane Birkin who called Varda “a soldier, a fighter, the only woman among the boys of the New Wave.”
Varda in an emotional moment gave tribute to her late husband Jacques Demy and their two Palmes — her new Honorary Palme and Demy’s for Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964).
At 87 years old, the outstanding signature of her work is “cinéma libre” — free cinema with each production being a unique creation. Varda does not regard her profession as being a filmmaker: “I haven’t had a career: I’ve made films; I haven’t succeeded because I’m not rich.” For someone who does not see herself as a filmmaker, she is the recipient of many awards: “I’ve a bestiary of prizes — a Golden Lion from Venice film festival, a Bear from Berlin, dogs and so on — but never money.” This is a typical situation for a woman in the film world who makes independent films and works in the poetic idiom. For Varda, film is an art, and although she has made films that have garnered attention, her work is not done in a commercial vein but for the sake of independent cinema. Rightfully so, she deserves the honorary Palme that was awarded her in the evening.
Varda is careful when she explains herself as a feminist: “I’m still a feminist, but I didn’t want to be the filmmaker who represented feminism.” In 1976 she worked on a film that was equal men and women, and she was the first to have an all-female technical crew, but this was simply because she could not understand how a woman couldn’t do anything a man did.
Varda’s favorite directors are women. Filmmakers such as Barbara Loden, who made the brilliant cinema verité Wanda — a portrait of a woman whose husband divorces her and takes her kids. She becomes a vagabond, lives off the generosity of men, and in the end, is talked into doing a bank job with a petty criminal she randomly hooks up with. Wanda is partially based on Loden’s own life experience. Varda proclaimed, “I don’t think a man could’ve produced such a sensitive film.” In fact, Elia Kazan, who had the original idea for the film, said that it was Loden’s film because she made it hers, much like Meshes of the Afternoon, the film that Maya Deren made with Alexander Hammid. It was their idea and then became her film. Claire Denis is another favorite of Varda, along with Miranda July. All three filmmakers work in an exceptionally creative and independent fashion.
The Cannes classic section of the festival screens memorable classic films that have been restored, and Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 was one of those selected this year. She featured Cleo as the first clip in her talk, a film about a pop singer who wanders around Paris awaiting the results of a biopsy. The composition of the frame is exalted for the first 45 minutes, Varda explains, and shows us how people see Cleo. The last 15 minutes show us how Cleo sees herself. The defiant Cleo is a rebel since Varda adds, “rebelliousness is part of being a woman.” Therein lies the way that Varda works.
The second clip she featured was video of her installation The Widows of Noirmoutier (2005), a series of 14 interviews with the widows of fisherman where the spectator can listen to each woman while sitting in a chair. Regarding the lives of women, Varda said, “it’s complicated. There’s complexity in society, contradictions in marriages or couples. It’s complicated to live.” Not only is it complicated, she said, but women are also marginalized because of it. However, she takes inspiration from filmmaker Jean Luc Godard: “It’s the margin that holds the pages of the book together. We shouldn’t suffer to be at the margin. We’re on the side that holds.” Varda does not think that women should be forced to speak out about this but that women should be invited to screen their work at festivals and be on juries at festivals so their work can be valued. This is a tricky idea that Varda tries to express. She does not want to be singled out as a suffering, marginalized director, but she does think it’s important for more women to be invited to show their work.
Just how inclusion of women in the film world should come about is the subject of the Kering and SACD talks (discussed in this companion article) at this 68th Cannes Film Festival. In particular, the example of the Swedish Film Institute is proof that structurally creating opportunities for women is a successful approach. Whatever approach we take to creating more equality in film, the work and wit of Agnès Varda has helped pave the way for women filmmakers around the world.