The film world lost a legend last week when Agnès Varda passed away at 90. The heartfelt outpouring of tributes from filmmakers, actors, and critics around the world says a lot about the legacy of the French New Wave icon who inspired so many. But she was most influential to a new generation of women filmmakers, a role she relished.
Varda’s influence is all over the work of Greta Gerwig, Miranda July, Lena Dunham, Kelly Reichardt and Crystal Moselle. Varda herself often expressed admiration for many of these directors when asked about new talent.
Here are just a few of the lessons the godmother of the French New Wave imparted to the next generation of women filmmakers, in their words.
The inspiration to make their first film.
Miranda July (“Me and You and Everyone We Know”): “‘Kung Fu Master’ (‘Le Petit Amour’) was the movie that propelled me to make ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know.’ I saw this when I was writing. It’s a weird movie, about Jane Birkin having an affair with a 15-year-old classmate of her daughter, played by her real-life daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Only the French could pull that off. I remember watching it and thinking there should be some way to have a romance between an adult and a child that doesn’t have to do with pedophilia. — The Guardian
Alexandra Hidalgo (“Vanishing Borders”): I cried the first time I watched ‘The Gleaners and I’ after having to teach violent, white-male driven films to my students week after week—there was this sense of relief, followed by the pure joy of seeing this woman’s journey. Gleaners made it clear that I could also make films and that I could do it on my own terms. — Cleo Journal
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She was the filmmaker of my life. Kung Fu Master was the movie that propelled me to make Me and You and Everyone We Know and her life was the one that most inspired me — married to another director, having children but always her weird self and always making things that were actual, spirit-filled art, not movies in the boring sense. This isn’t very well written and I am tearful. It was incredibly sweet and meaningful to me that our lives overlapped at the end. That I got to sit in her home in Paris and eat the food she made, that my child jumped on her grandchildren’s trampoline here in LA, that she wrote funny things on my videos, calling me a kook, as if she weren’t one. The whole time I was making this new movie I thought “I can’t wait to show it to Agnes.” It’s a small, selfish thought, but these are the things that help one through the long process. Just to not feel alone. I am indebted to you and forever grateful. Ok, goodbye. You did so good. Thank you. * * photo by @dianawpicasso who was with us that day.
Sofia Bohdanowicz (“Maison du Bonheur”): “‘La Pointe Courte’ was the first time I had ever seen docu-fiction. The way Varda integrated footage of the actual villagers in Sète within the narrative of the couple revisiting the husband’s hometown opened my eyes to the world of hybrid filmmaking. It helped me develop my first feature film, ‘Never Eat Alone’ (2016).” — Cleo Journal
Caroline Leone (“A Window to Rosália”): “I watched all of Varda’s work and she became a kind of master-mentor to me, giving me the inspiration and courage I needed to make my own films.” — Cleo Journal
Her infectious spirit and zest for life.
July: “Her life was the one that most inspired me — married to another director, having children but always her weird self and always making things that were actual, spirit-filled art, not movies in the boring sense.” — Instagram
Ava DuVernay (“Selma”): Last year at Cannes, Agnès Varda invited me to breakfast. She spoke of how she was in the last year of her life. About choices. And change. I told her what she meant to me. She held my hand as I did. Merci, Agnes. For your films. For your passion. For your light. It shines on. — Twitter
Lauren Wolkstein (“The Strange Ones”): “Varda was a true visionary with a great attitude about life. I hope I get to make films well into my 80s. But if nothing else, I hope I get to smile and nap and be as lively as her when I am an octogenarian, if I get to be so lucky.” — As told to IndieWire
Her incredible work ethic and passion for filmmaking.
Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”): “Agnes Varda told me she just couldn’t stop making things, that she wrote every morning starting at 4am. She showed me a notebook full of drawings of possible props and then she finished the leftover drinks on all the tables around us. It was her idea to pound it out. Rest in power to the best ever to do it.” — Instagram
Lucy Walker (“The Devil’s Playground”): “When we filmed with you our crew couldn’t keep up with you and you hated to stop for their lunch, there are too many things to do, and then you’d show us your postage stamp collages you were sticking onto postcards and sending to your many friends, and we were off to the estate sale and the back of the garden and… phew. … I want to live as fully as you do. — Instagram
She was simply the best.
Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”): “You’re just as good as Truffaut, or Godard, or your husband!” — Variety
July: “She was the filmmaker of my life.” — Instagram
Shaina Feinberg (“The Babymooners”): Varda’s movies are original. They are the opposite of formulaic. It feels like she is opening herself up and showing herself to us. — As told to IndieWire
Last year at Cannes, Agnès Varda invited me to breakfast. She spoke of how she was in the last year of her life. About choices. And change. I told her what she meant to me. She held my hand as I did. Merci, Agnes. For your films. For your passion. For your light. It shines on. pic.twitter.com/NP2FSJACY9
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) March 29, 2019
She paved the way…
Julia Hart (“Miss Stevens”): “I’m headed to set for a day of additional photography. I’m only on this set as a woman as the director because you paved the way. Rest in peace, you wild & wonderful trailblazer.” — Twitter
Ry Russo Young (“Before I Fall”): “Growing up, I never saw female directors depicted on screen. Then I remembered when I was older seeing ‘The Gleaners and I,’ a documentary Varda is also featured in. It meant a lot because she was just… so much of herself. Seeing a model of another female director at work was inspiring.” — The Front
Janicza Bravo (“Lemon”): I believe that the first image I ever saw of you- was you standing on a man’s back while looking into a camera… Whether or not it was actually the first- its the one that stayed with me and the one I go to when I hear your name. Today I think of you in other images. Thank you for making the way. — Instagram
Wolkstein: “Varda paved the way for all of us to tell stories about women who were as complicated and complex as their male counterparts. Her female protagonists were rebellious and non-conforming.” — As told to IndieWire
…And reminded people to keep going.
July: “The whole time I was making this new movie I thought ‘I can’t wait to show it to Agnes.’ It’s a small, selfish thought, but these are the things that help one through the long process. Just to not feel alone.” — Instagram
Walker: “My generation of documentary makers who are more inspired by your ‘Gleaners’ than any other film. But all your films, starting with ‘Cleo,’ I owe my life to. I must get back to my filming now. Which I do now and always because of you, Agnes. Merci.” — Instagram
Feinberg: “Varda’s legacy really is like a lit path for women filmmakers or any filmmakers who feel like they want to do something different. Her body of work is like GO FOR IT, BE YOU! Sometimes it can be lonely to make something different, but her work is there to show you to keep going. Watching her movies emboldened me to keep going.” — As told to IndieWire
Laughing at convention and leading with her gut.
Crystal Moselle (“The Wolfpack”): She mastered something most can’t …incorporating her own self into her work in a way that made sense. ‘The Gleaners and I,’ ‘Beaches of Agnes,’ … Her creativity was always a reminder to me to lead with your gut. — Instagram
Bohdanowicz: “Watching ‘La Pointe Courte’ and learning about how she made it saved my life and changed the way I thought films could be made. I didn’t know it was possible to make a film so economically, so quickly and on instinct. The fact that she made this work without having seeing many other films and shot it with such a small budget inspired me to start making my own work.”
Leone: “‘Cléo From 5 to 7’ was the first woman-directed film I ever saw, and it completely blew my mind. … Varda developed so many different layers of meanings, thoughts and feelings: mirrors, the feminine, city life, loneliness, existentialism—it’s all there.”
Wolkstein: “She did everything her way, refusing to conform to conventions and filmmaking techniques that would have put her in a box. She made films that felt personal and playful, bold and original. Varda’s films explored her curiosities about the unknowable and the unanswerable, the elusiveness of people and the desire to connect with the world around us.”
Permission to be messy.
Feinberg: Varda’s movies are aesthetically beautiful but they don’t feel put on. Like you see the beauty but also the mistakes – she pokes fun at how she filmed something poorly or bemoans the fact that she missed a shot. Her work makes you feel better about being a messy human.