It’s possible that I would never have become a filmmaker if not for Agnes Varda. It is certain that I wouldn’t have become the kind of filmmaker I did without the shining example of her films. The last script I wrote, a horror film titled The Vanishing Room contains an explicit homage to Cleo from 5 to 7, and the script I’m currently writing, a family dramedy titled Together Through Life, contains an explicit homage to The Gleaners and I. I first encountered Varda’s work when I saw the documentary The Young Girls Turn 25 at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1993. I was 18-years-old, had recently arrived in Chicago to attend theater school at DePaul and hadn’t even seen the film (Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort) that The Young Girls Turn 25 was ostensibly about. Yet I was instantly smitten by the curiosity and playfulness of her filmmaking eye. The experience of watching this film was not only my fortuitous introduction to the filmography of Agnes Varda but to the French New Wave as a whole. Over the years, I tried to watch as many of her films as I could and I loved her work so much that I eventually made her the subject of my first short-lived podcast in 2015. (You can hear me tell the full story of how The Young Girls Turn 25 changed my life in a conversation I had with critics Ben and Kat Sachs on episode 1 of The White City Cinema Radio Hour here.)
I had the great pleasure of meeting Varda in 2015 when she came to Chicago to attend a career retrospective of her films and an exhibit of her photographs titled “Photographs Get Moving” at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. I was invited to what was billed as a “press conference” with Varda about the photography exhibit. Then, at the last minute, the critics and journalists who had been invited to the event were told that Varda didn’t want to hold a formal press conference but instead wanted to merely talk to those of us who had come while giving us an informal tour of the gallery. The event ended up consisting of Varda talking to about a dozen people for 45 minutes and then offering to answer any questions we had. She had mentioned that she was working on a new film so I asked her if it was a feature or a short. She said it was a feature documentary that would be exactly 75 minutes long because that was the run time of The Gleaners and I, a length she considered ideal for non-fiction films. (The end result, Faces Places, would clock in at 90 minutes.) She also asked us if we knew the work of her co-director JR. I’ll never forget the look of surprise and pleasure on her face when Kat Sachs, sitting next to me, raised her hand.
The “press conference” ended with Varda announcing her personal e-mail address and inviting us to submit any further questions we had via e-mail. I took her up on the offer and asked if she wanted to do an interview for Time Out Chicago. I was astonished when she replied a few days later, apologizing for her tardiness and explaining that her days in Chicago were “full of activities and meetings” and that she hoped to find the time to do an architecture boat tour of the city. You can read the resulting interview, one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever done, at Time Out Chicago here. I saw Varda again when she participated in a Q&A moderated by Jonathan Rosenbaum following a screening of Cleo from 5 to 7 at the Music Box Theater towards the end of her stay. Answering questions in person, she was as full of life and love and curiosity about the world as you would expect based on watching her movies. But she could also speak bluntly when trying to get her point across. The two things that I remember most from that Q&A: A young man asked her about working with Jean-Luc Godard on Cleo from 5 to 7, a question that elicited boos from several audience members. “No, no,” Varda cut them off. “Godard is a genius.” She went on to say that the cinema needs people like Godard and praised his innovative use of 3D in Goodbye to Langauge. Later, she mentioned that Madonna had purchased the American remake rights to Cleo, a project that never got off the ground. Several audience members laughed loudly at the prospect of this remake but Varda quickly disabused them of the notion that she thought this was a bad idea and said that she wished it had happened.
I’ve shown Cleo from 5 to 7, Faces Places and, my favorite, Vagabond, in various film studies classes over the years and I look forward to showing them all (plus The Gleaners and I, Happiness and more) many more times in the future. Rest in peace, Madame Varda. The world will not see your like again.