Agnes Varda’s Long-Term Legacy: Why It Took Decades For American Audiences to Appreciate Her Work

Former MOMA curator Laurence Kardish looks back on the history of Varda's reception in the U.S. and how its appeal grew over the decades.
Agnes Varda is awarded the Berlinale Camera during the premiere of 'Varda by Agnes' (Varda par Agnes) at the 69th annual Berlin Film Festival, in Berlin, Germany, 13 February 2019. The movie, which plays out of competition, will world premiere at the Berlinale that runs from 07 to 17 February.Varda by Agnes Premiere ? 69th Berlin Film Festival, Germany - 13 Feb 2019
Agnes Varda is awarded the Berlinale Camera during the premiere of 'Varda by Agnes" in Berlin

Agnes Varda is deservedly eulogized in newspapers and on social media all over America today, but critics, programmers and audiences in the U.S. took time in recognizing her accomplishments. It took several decades for her work gain appreciation in the U.S., and during that time, I witnessed Varda’s ability to continue evolving as an artist every step of the way.

While Varda’s debut feature, “La Pointe Courte” (1955) has yet to have a theatrical release in America, her early short, “L’Opera Mouffe” (1958), was distributed  by Cinema 16, an important film club run by Amos and Marcia Vogel in the 50’s and early 60’s dedicated to the showing and release of experimental and avant-garde cinema. The film won some notoriety because of its casual nudity — then still rare on American screens — and it was booked in film societies around the country seeding the bed for later Varda appreciation.

The first of Varda’s films to have a theatrical opening in New York was “Cleo from 5 to 7” in 1962 at the Cinema II, which still exists. It was reviewed by Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, who was not particularly enthusiastic about it referring to Agnes as “Mlle Varda” and finding its star, Corinne Marchand, “a large ponderous blonde.”  The New York Film Festival, co-directed by Amos Vogel and Richard Roud, was established in 1963, and although Vogel was an early champion of Agnes, the NYFF did not show her next feature. “Le Bonheur” (1965) played for a few weeks in May 1966 at the Fine Arts Theater (now long gone) on 58th Street.  A.H. Weiler of The New York Times reviewed it more than less favorably. The film sparked controversy as it seemed to many that “Le Bonheur” subverted feminism which was not to be expected from the director of “Cleo from 5 to 7.”

The NYFF, however, did show its first Varda film in September of 1966, “The Creatures,” which Roger Greenspun of the New York Times “hated” but reconsidered when Dan Talbot opened it as a New Yorker release in 1969. Later the same year, the NYFF included Varda’s Hollywood-shot  “Lion’s Love…and Lies” starring Viva, Jerome Ragni and James Rado, who both had written the musical “Hair,” and Agnes’ pioneering American “sister”filmmaker, Shirley Clarke. Vincent Canby, reviewing it for the Times got it right calling “Lion’s Love…Lies” “a beautiful cockeyed movie.”

It took seven more years before a new Varda film was shown in New York, “Daguerreotypes,” which was included in The Second Annual Festival of Women’s Films at the now-vanished Cinema Studio on 66th and Broadway. Canby reviewed the film glowingly, calling it a “a witty, very humane appreciation of Miss Varda’s friends and neighbors on a short section of the Rue Daguerre, a lively street of small shops in Paris’ 14th arrondissement.”

In those years, while Varda was making short films in France there was, in America, an explosive growth of womens’ studies and media programs on college and university campuses. Film societies developed in institutions of higher learning, and thanks to film critics who wrote books on criticism, a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of film culture developed.

“One Sings, the Other Doesn’t”

In 1977, Varda became the first woman filmmaker to open the New York Film Festival with “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t,” a story with music of a long friendship between two women. Several of the 14 previous festivals opened with works by Varda’s French compatriots – Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Pascal Thomas and Francois Truffaut (three times) — and so the honor of a New York opening night was deeply meaningful to Varda, who actually  had preceded all the other directors in the making of films. While Varda’s earlier films were barely distributed across America, “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t,” by virtue of its Opening Night status and its acquisition by Don Rugoff of Cinema 5, a very savvy exhibitor/distributor, enjoyed a modest nationwide fame. This was despite very tepid reviews by both Canby and Pauline Kael in the New Yorker.

Varda’s next New York Film Festival appearance was in 1981 with a double-bill of two medium-length films made when she returned to L.A., “Murs, Murs” about the city’s “graffiti” wall murals, and “Documenteur” about a foreign woman with a young son adjusting to a single life in the margins of the city. Janet Maslin of The New York Times was quite negative about these Varda’s films, and neither had an official run.

Five years later, having won the main prize, the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, “Vagabond” opened at the Lincoln Plaza. It was not only lauded by Caryn James of The New York Times but enjoyed immense critical approval. More than any other film it was “Vagabond”, then released nationally by Grange Communications/International Film Exchange, that firmly established Varda as a filmmaker to be followed in the US.

Through my associations with the French Film Office/Unifrance in New York I had met Agnes in 1977, when she came to New York for the premiere of “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t.”  The French Film Office, charged with promoting French cinema in America had begun an annual series “Perspectives on French Cinema” which MoMA’s Department of Film soon adopted and curated. In 1988, I worked directly with Varda in bringing to the thirteenth season of “Perspectives” the two feature films she made in Paris with her good friend, Jane Birkin, “Jane B. by Agnes V.” and “Kung Fu Master.” Agnes treated the two films as one diptych, “Birkin Double Jeu Varda I and II.” It was then I started to talk with Agnes about organizing a MoMA retrospective. However, she did not feel it was yet time.

In the late ‘80s Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda’s husband, was ill and Varda, determined to safeguard his legacy, spent much of her time, energy and money in recouping the rights to his films and having them restored and preserved. Jacques died in 1990 from AIDS-related complications and Agnes honored him by making three features about about his work –  “Jacquot de Nantes” (1991), shown at the New York Film Festival and distributed by Sony Pictures Classics nationwide, and two films which never officially opened in the U.S., “The Young Girls (of Rochefort) turn 25” (1991), and The World of Jacques Demy (1993).

In mid-1996, Agnes agreed to work on a full retrospective of her films at MoMA, and I, as then Curator and Coordinator of Film Exhibitions in the Department of Film and Video, was delighted to oblige. The retrospective was titled simply “Agnes Varda” and ran the entire month of October in 1997. We showed every film Agnes made. I believe “La Pointe Courte” received its first American screening as did several of her shorts during the retrospective. As was appropriate for any artist at MoMA who has an exhibition, we were able to acquire some of her films for the collection. Agnes came to New York, sat for many interviews, and was applauded by full houses in our large theater.

After the retrospective, I asked Agnes to let us consider showing and perhaps acquiring any of her future films. She replied that she was 69, and while she intended to remain very active, she could no longer afford to use film either physically or financially. She would, however, continue to make moving-images with small digital cameras that would allow her to travel easily throughout France.

gleaners and i
“The Gleaners and I”

Three years later, Agnes’ video-essay “The Gleaners and I” welcomed a new century. It became an instant classic celebrating the artisanal potential of digital image-making, and the joy of meeting people unencumbered. Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo of Zeitgeist released “The Gleaners and I” to great success, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But not quite. Although Varda continued to make wonderful video essays like “The Beaches of Agnes” (2008), ”Faces, Places”(2017) and “Varda by Agnes” (a “master class” completed just six weeks before her death), she had other things to do. In 2000, Agnes turned to the making of art, unique or editioned pieces that could be exhibited in museums or in private collections. These included reworked photographs, installations, and video pieces that required gallery spaces rather than a conventional cinema. I am particularly proud of being able to guide successfully one of her “wall pieces,” “The Triptych of Noirmoutier,” through MoMA’s acquisition committee.

Agnes has had major exhibitions at the Venice Biennale (2003), the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris (2006), in the port city of Sete where she spent the war years as a child and where she shot her first film, “La Pointe Courte” (2009),  at the Blum and Poe Gallery in New York (2017), and in 2014 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a city for which she has affection given her years there with Jacques, where she made several films, and where her son, the actor-director Mathieu Demy, lives with his wife and their children.

A few days before she died, she returned happily from an art garden on the grounds of a castle in the Loire where she finished installing three pieces including a “Greenhouse of Happiness.” It is now open to the public.     

Earlier this week, my wife Jillian and I received a happy email from Agnes. She had just returned from the Domaine de Chaumon-sur-Loire, an art garden on the grounds of a fairy-tale-like castle about 125 miles south of Paris where artists were invited to make installations embracing the natural world. Agnes had just finished installing three works, the largest one of which is a cabana whose walls are covered with strips of 35mm film unrolled from cans of discarded prints that digital moving-image technology has rendered useless for theatrical exhibition. Agnes has built several cabanas since making her first in 2006. Each structure is unique as are the feature-length films used to wall in the frames. Within her most recent cabana, “The Greenhouse of Happiness,” are several ridiculously bright sunflowers, all fake but pleasant to consider. I think this work neatly encapsulates what was special about her as both an artist and a person.

More than anyone I have known, Agnes was a rigorously unsentimental lover of people – strangers, family, friends, neighbors, and young aspiring artists. She cared about humanity but never, for a second, did she, or could she ever, lapse into dreamy, treacly, sugary or even sunny thoughts about the goodness of people. Her affection was genuine, astringent and jaundiced: it was never simple. This is one reason why “The Greenhouse of Happiness” is, to me, so revelatory.

It is made from footage of her 1964 (released in 1965) cheerfully colored domestic melodrama, “Le Bonheur “ about a happily married man who happily cheats on his happy wife whom, when he tells of his affair in order to extend his own happiness, unhappily drowns herself while he happily carries on with his mistress who will from now on happily will look after him and his two happy children. It is a work of extreme irony recognizing the primacy of male satisfaction which is, to put it gently, blind.

On the surface the film exudes a buoyancy but under that lightness lies, for women, darkness. It is a prime feminist work, not surprising for a woman who believes she was born with a feminist chromosome which is manifest in all her art (photographs, films, videos, installations) and was evident to her from a very early age, when, as she once told me she was taken to see Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1939), she was appalled at the behavior of Snow White keeping house for a gaggle of unkempt short men.

Agnes is the embodiment of the “Just Do It” meme decades before Madison Avenue trivialized it. She loved the company of artists no matter the medium and no matter their standing in the world. For the 5-episode television series, “From Here to There” (2011) she traveled the world meeting and having lively conversations with artist friends and colleagues like Miquel Barcelo, Christian Boltanski, Chris Marker, Annette Messager, Manoel de Olivera, Carlos Reygadas, Patrick Sorin, and Alexander Sukurov.  Beyond film- and video- making Agnes considered herself an artist foremost and even in her 70’s and 80’s a perpetually emerging one at that. Her art was all at once personal, social, and collaborative. It kept her exuberant.

She ended her last email to us by writing that, although she was exhausted, she was happy to be surrounded by those who supported her – including Rosalie, her daughter, a producer, and the whole team at Cine-Tamaris, the company she established in 1975 to safeguard her and Jacques Demy films. Agnes had hoped to return to the Loire for a private opening of her installations on April 6, when she would send us photos. Then she would take a rest.

Over 44 years Laurence Kardish organized over one thousand moving-image exhibitions covering the whole history and culture of cinema at New York’s The Museum of Modern Art where he was Senior Curator of Film. In 1988 Kardish curated the first retrospective in the U.S. of Bertrand Tavernier when the artist was in early mid-career. Kardish also organized retrospectives of other French filmmakers and actors such as Claude Chabrol, Louis Malle, Isabelle Huppert, Agnes Varda, to name a few, and for Gaumont’s 100th Anniversary he developed a major film series that travelled the U.S.For his support of French Cinema the French government made Kardish an “Officier dans les Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.” He is currently working on a book about Shirley Clarke.

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