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Agnès Varda turned 90 - a look at her five best films


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After Agnès Varda's 90th birthday, we look back at the French director's five best films. 

1. Clèo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962)

Varda’s debut La Pointe Courte (1955) garnered critical praise, but it was her second feature that crowned her the ‘grandmother of the French New Wave’ – a someone dubious title, given Varda was not yet 40 when she made the film. The film follows pampered pop singer Cléo (Corinne Marchand) as she makes her way through Paris, awaiting the results of a medical test she fears will confirm stomach cancer, and the profound transformation of perspective she undergoes. A stylish portrait of Paris and a perceptive character study, Cléo from 5 to 7 blends French New Wave cool with Varda’s interest in gender, offering a dissection of the male gaze over ten years before Laura Mulvey would famously write about it. Truly one of the great films.

2. Le Bonheur (1965)

Controversial on release, with critics labelling its vision of a disposable wife as anti-feminist, Le Bonheur has now been reappraised as a masterwork of seething irony. The plot concerns a young suburban couple, François and Therese, and their two children. François takes a mistress, and continues to live in a state of untainted happiness even as tragic events inevitably unfold. A deceptively dark tale of male entitlement sarcastically seeped in warm primary colours, Le Bonheur is Varda at her most astute and scathing.

3. Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985)

If there’s one thing that makes an Agnès Varda film, it’s her blurring of documentary and fiction styles – and nowhere is this on better display than in Vagabond. The film begins with the discovery of a woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) found dead in a ditch, having frozen to death during the night. The film then flashes back to the last few week of the woman, an independent young drifter named Mona, as she travels from place to place. The film, perhaps Varda’s most famous, is narrated in interview style by the people who have met Mona on the road, lending the tragedy a confrontational edge that challenges assumptions about gender and class. Vagabond won Varda the Golden Lion at the Venice Film festival, while the 18-year-old Bonnaire picked up a Best Actress César.

4. The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000)

The turn of the millennium marked a shift for Varda’s feature films, from fact-fiction hybrids to a series of documentaries mixing the director’s interests with anecdotes and insights from her own life. The first of these sees Varda, inspired by 19th century paintings of ‘Gleaners’ collecting leftover crops from harvested fields, embark on an investigation of modern-day gleaners – those who salvage that which society has discarded. The resulting journey is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving, with Varda’s witty stream of consciousness filmmaking making it all the more enjoyable.

5. Faces Places (Visages Villages, 2017)

Varda’s Oscar-nominated documentary, released this coming summer in the UK, is a road-trip-buddy-movie-of-sorts made in collaboration with the photographer and muralist JR. Travelling around rural France, the pair create giant photographic murals of those willing to tell their stories. It doesn’t take long for it become apparent that Varda and JR’s unlikely friendship amounts to one of cinema's great double acts.

In one of the film's best moments, JR pastes a photo of Varda's long-deceased friend Guy Bourdin onto a WW2 bunker that has fallen onto a beach. When the pair return soon after, the image washed away with the tide. It's such a perfectly poetic visual that it might come across as contrived in the hands of a more pretentious or less capable filmmaker, but Varda is still as boundlessly genuine and accomplished as they come. 'Chance has always been my best assistant' she claims, humble as ever; and as true as it seems here, she does herself a disservice – she remains one of our greatest living filmmakers.

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