It came as a big surprise: Agnes Varda of all directors received an Honorary Oscar in Los Angeles — a good opportunity for taking a closer look at her work.
When the winners of this year's Honorary Oscars were announced in early September, many were surprised to see director Agnes Varda among them.
Like no other award, the golden statue stands for Hollywood's glitz and glamour — attributes not usually associated with Varda.
The filmmaker is seen as a true artist and a staunch representative of film d'auteur, one who has defied film conventions. Once in a while, an Oscar is awarded to significant film artists. But more often than not, it tends to go to representatives of the English-speaking film world, particularly major, high-income Hollywood stars who guarantee success at the box office. In other words, Varda is anything but a likely candidate.
An autodidact behind the camera
Born in Brussels in 1928 to a Greek father and a French mother, Agnes Varda grew up on the French Riviera. Before turning to film, she developed a deep passion for literature, photography and art while paying much less attention to film. Rumor has it that, prior to directing her first film, "La Pointe Courte," in 1955, she had only watched ten movies. She was simply more interested in the works of significant writers, artists and photographers. "Photography has never ceased to teach me how to make films," that's how she once put it.
And yet, Agnes Varda has become an outstanding film icon in France, film's original birthplace. For a long time, she was overshadowed by her male colleagues, among them Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. Over a long period of time, they were seen as film revolutionaries and the founders of the famous "Nouvelle Vague," which triggered a rebirth of French film in the early 1960s. There wasn't much talk about Varda at the time, probably because the filmmaker did not have much contact to Truffaut and Godard, who originally worked as film critics.
An adventurous director
On the other hand, the world of film would have done well if it had paid more attention to Agnes Varda at an earlier stage. After all, her debut film in 1955 already contained elements that her male colleagues only came to apply a few years later in famous works like "Breathless" and "The 400 Blows" — an unconventional dramaturgy, experimentation with filming, cutting and editing, as well as montage, a combination of movie and documentary elements. "All these new elements with which the "Nouvelle Vague" came to challenge the "tradition de qualité" had already been apparent in Varda's very first work in terms of production technology, intellectual attitude and aesthetics." That's how film critics Miriam Fuchs and Norbert Grob described Varda's career later on.
Only at a later stage did Agnes Varda come to be acknowledged in the group of significant French film revolutionaries — and always with the footnote that she was the only female representative of the "nouvelle vague." After all, writing about film was long the nearly exclusive domain of men. That has changed over time. And over the last few years, Varda has been honored, acclaimed and celebrated on numerous occasions.
An Oscar for the only woman of the 'Nouvelle Vague'
Neither Chabrol, nor Alain Resnais, Rohmer and Rivette or other heroes of the "Nouvelle Vague" ever won an Oscar. Truffaut was the only one to receive this very special honor in 1974 for his "American Night." Jean-Luc Godard received an Honorary Oscar in 2010. The director, known for his toughness, didn't much appreciate the gesture — he didn't even deem it necessary to travel to Los Angeles to accept the statue. "Such a long way to go for a little piece of metal?" — this rhetorical question of his has become legendary.
What is Varda likely to think about her Honorary Oscar? All this is known is that the director, who lived and worked with her husband, director Jacques Demy, in the US for a few years in the 1960s, stubbornly refused to accept commercial offers by big film companies. Varda always insisted on having complete artistic independence. Back then, Hollywood just didn't want to grant that to her.
That the Academy is now honoring Varda with an Honorary Oscar could well be interpreted as a sign of change. After all, the Academy recently came under fire several times for not being open enough towards female, as well as black filmmakers. So maybe it is making an effort to counter this criticism. What is certain is that Agnes Varda truly deserves the honor.
Varda is to receive the distinction at the Governors Awards ceremony in Los Angeles on November 11.