Different Worlds – Remembering Agnès Varda

Les Plages d'Agnès © Ciné Tamaris
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Sans Toit ni Loi” (English title: Vagabond), by Agnès Varda won Best Feature Film at the Venice Film Festival in 1985, and the leading actress Sandrine Bonnaire, Best Actress. The film – about a young woman – a vagabond – someone with no shelter (toit) but also no rules (loi) wandering one winter through the Languedoc-Roussilion wine country in France, made a big impression on me when I saw it. The successive experiences she had to endure were very difficult, but having gone through rather unhappy teenage years myself, I could relate to some extent.

I was not even twenty at that time and in retrospect, for me, that period was also the beginning of my ‘vagabond’ life.

I had started film studies at the film school in Brussels – far away from my home town – learning how to deal with an independent young adult life … it would become a journey of ups and down, inherent to a vagabond life …

In film history lessons we learned about the typical film classics (like ‘Batlleship Potemkin’ by Sergei Eisenstein), and of course the Nouvelle Vague( French New Wave). Some highlights of this influential European art cinema movement are: ‘La Nuit Américaine’ (Day for Night) by François Truffaut, and the mesmerizing ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ by Alain Resnais. 

As you can tell, (primarily) male directors, I do not recall that we got to learn about the work of Agnès Varda, the unique (only) female/feminist pioneer of the Nouvelle Vague.

So I didn’t hear her name until some years later (in 1991) when I had to write a “test” review about ‘Jacquot de Nantes’, a biography/docudrama by Agnès Varda – subtitled “Varda’s love letter” – about the childhood of her late husband Jacques (Jacquot) Demy, himself a Nouvelle Vague director, best known for ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.

I passed the test (!) and so started ‘Jacquot’ my career as a filmcritic/journalist for a Belgian film magazine. And the beginning of my more profound interest in female filmmakers.

Little did I know that I would meet Agnès Varda in person in Los Angeles almost 20 years later; and that my film articles would help me make the big transatlantic leap, for the next episode in my vagabond life … in La La Land!

Let’s jump to a few years later … In 2000 I attended the Cinevegas Film Fest – taking place at the Paris (!) Las Vegas Hotel – to cover it for my Belgian film magazine. At the opening night reception I got into a nice conversation with a good looking guy. He definitely had a french accent, so I asked him about some things, and then he introduced himself as Mathieu Demy, yes!, the son of Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda. He was there to accept an award on behalf of her… in Las Vegas, of all places !

If that was not an sign to meet Varda in person eventually …!

A year or two later I was working with some colleagues on a video series of “independent women filmmakers”. We had interviewed various female directors at the Sundance film festival.

View of Venice Beach, where I live at the time of the interview with Agnès Varda.

I had been able to get/lure Agnès Varda to do an interview as well, and that took place at the famous Rose Cafe in Venice Beach.

Varda manifested herself as a warm, very open-minded cineaste, with some firm ideas about her original filmmaking style and the importance of ‘feminist’ filmmakers in a (dominantly) male driven industry.

I cherish good and inspiring memories about that personal meeting with the “grande dame” of the Nouvelle Vague! 

– Varda spent quite some time in Los Angeles. At some point (in 1968) she and her husband Jacques Demy moved briefly to LA where Demy directed some films. After his dead, she kept visiting the city frequently -.

Beaches, and the love for it, the need for it in our life, a place to escape, another element we had in common. Symbolically or not, our meeting happened in Venice Beach (where I lived at that time).

Agnès Varda made a very poignant documentary ‘Les Plages d’Agnès’ (The Beaches of Agnès) wherein she revisited the beaches she had spend time during her life – in Europe and the US (SoCal) – and had a special meaning for her. I remember seeing that documentary in its release year (2008) at the French Consulate in Los Angeles and was very touched by it. 

Few (non-Europeans) know that Agnès Varda was born in Brussels, but lived in Paris and Sète for most of her life.

© Kaat Cleenewerck

In 2013 – I had returned to Belgium at that time – Agnès Varda became “citoyen d’honneur” (citizen of honor) of Brussels. I was lucky to be present at the ceremony in the town hall and the celebration in the evening at the Brussels school of photography and cinematography who became then named after her : Ecole de Photographie et de Techniques visuelles Agnès Varda.

Varda stayed very active, even in her eighties, in her last years. Always present, with her typical hairstyle/hairdo – her bob -, in the foreground or immersed in the landscapes of her films.

As ultime reward – more than deserved -was received in 2017 an Academy Honorary Award for her contributions to cinema, making her the first female director to receive such an award.

A comprehensive insight in and overview of her life-work, her final oeuvre, her ‘swan song’ so to say – she finished it a couple of months ago – is ‘Varda par Agnès’. Go see it. I love it and will hold on on it, as a compagnon de route in my vagabond life …

(Note: Agnes Varda died on March 29, 2019. For a complete overview of her work, please consult the professional film website

About Kaat Cleenewerck 11 Articles
After a 12 years "life adventure" in Los Angeles where Kaat Cleenewerck worked in independent film and as a journalist, she relocated a couple of years ago to her native country, Belgium. Yet, the ties with Los Angeles are still very strong, inviting, and most of all, inspiring.

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