Varda was well-known on her pedestrian street reputed for its food shops in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. Its butcher, baker, hairdresser, and other merchants were featured in her 1976 documentary film Daguerréotypes. I stopped by there to pay my respects a few days after she died. The florist from whom I bought a bouquet for Varda had pages of orders for the artist. “For her funeral tomorrow,” the florist had said. But it was not the piles of flowers that stood out the most outside her house: it was the potatoes.
Unique commemorative practices spring up around the figures buried in Parisian cemeteries. In the Père Lachaise cemetery, part of the standard tourist itinerary to Paris, Oscar Wilde’s grave is covered in thickly applied lipstick kisses; friendship bracelets are tied around Jim Morrison’s resting place, and even the fin-de-siècle lesbian poet Renée Vivien, buried in the quieter Passy cemetery, attracts communities of mourners who leave violets or small ornaments at her grave.
Admirers of Varda’s work offered potatoes, preferably heart-shaped, both outside her home and at her burial place in the Montparnasse cemetery, just steps away. She is buried next to her partner, director Jacques Démy, who died in 1990.
Potatoes figure prominently in her marvellous documentary film Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (2000). The film takes a light-hearted tone as it documents “gleaners,” the men and women who make use of waste: misshapen foods left behind by large-scale producers, old furniture and objects which are given new life in creative constructions. Varda ennobles the gleaners by comparing them to their ancestors, evoked in a poem by renaissance poet Joachim Du Bellay or depicted in paintings such as those by Jean-François Millet which figure prominently in the documentary. The environmental message of the film and its critique of overconsumption was ahead of its time. But Varda was always ahead of her time.
A pioneer of the French New Wave
Her 1954 film, La Pointe Courte, was considered, retrospectively, to be the first film of the French New Wave. According to cinema historian Bernard Bastide, of the 77 feature-length films made in France that year only two were directed by women: Varda’s inaugural film, which traces the marital problems of a couple (played by Silvia Montfort and Philippe Noiret) against the backdrop of a poor fishing village in the south of France, and Jacqueline Audry’s Huis-Clos, based on the play by Jean-Paul Sartre
Seven years later, when Varda’s best known film, Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961), came out, the situation had not changed much. There were just a handful of female directors making films (Jacqueline Audry, Nicole Védrès, Yannick Bellon) and Varda was, and would continue to be, the only one who was associated with the New Wave.
From the perspective of feminist film theory, Cléo de 5 à 7 was an extremely innovative and important film. Cinema studies professor, Sandy Flitterman-Lewis explains how Cleo goes from being the object of the gaze of others in the first part of the film to become the subject of the gaze in the film’s second half.
Varda eloquently explained in an interview published in Cinéma 75 in 1975 that “Cleo started out basing her entire sense of self on others’ looks; she was their cliché (and consequently their thing). Cleo is a woman-cliché, tall, beautiful, curvaceous. So the entire dynamics of the film centers on the moment this woman refuses to be this cliché, on the moment when she no longer wants to be looked at, but wants instead to look at others.”
Cléo de 5 à 7 is also a film about time, which is another concept that is central to Varda’s work. Varda’s films look at how the passing of time affects couples, bodies as they age (including her own), and the evolution of communities.
In Cléo de 5 à 7, Varda marks the passage of objective mechanical time, by clocking the actual time between 5pm and 7pm. This is juxtaposed against the subjective passage of time as felt by the characters: Cleo’s lover José who is always in a hurry; Antoine, whom Cleo meets at the end of the film and who actually has very little time before the end of his leave from military service but who gives generously of it to Cleo; Cleo’s own impatience to learn the results of the medical tests she is waiting for, and then her acceptance of them.
A constantly growing artist
Potatoes are also perfect for studying the passage of time since they sprout, change their shape and color. They mark time slowly, like the hands of a clock. You have to leave them alone, step away, and then come back again to notice that they’ve changed.
Varda felt an affinity for potatoes, she explained in a 2011 interview, because like them, she could grow in different directions and renew herself. She began calling herself a visual artist only late in her career when, in 2003, she was invited to show her photographic work at the 50th Venice Biennale of contemporary art. A second exhibition L’île et elle, full of the autobiographical references that are also the focus of her films Les Plages d’Agnès (2008) and Varda, par Agnès (2019), was held at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in 2006.
Since the early 2000s her photographs, installations, and video work have been exhibited internationally. In 2017, she was the oldest person to receive an Academy Award nomination in a competitive category for her charming documentary film Visages, villages, a collaboration with photographer and street artist JR.
Agnès Varda was a remarkable artist who was able to bring us to see mundane objects, like the humble potato, as subjects of wonder and inquiry capable of leading us in unexpected directions.