For a long time, I did not know who Agnes Varda was. Even when my love for cinema began to branch out beyond the recent movies coming out and whatever limited selection I could find at my local video store, her name was still not on my radar. As I learned about Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, and Vittorio De Sica, I still had not heard of Ms. Varda. Shockingly enough, I never even discovered her in college, while dipping my toes into French New Wave, the movement that she was an essential part of.
No, I didn’t find out about Agnes Varda until after graduating from film school, the summer of 2012, and in retrospect, it was the perfect way to discover her: by actually meeting her in person.
I was lucky enough to be accepted into the American Pavillion’s Cannes Film Festival internship program in 2012. It was a fantastic way to begin life after college. One month after walking across the stage and receiving my diploma, I was on a plane, headed to a country and a city I had never been to but had admired for years.
The whirlwind of possibilities at the film festival was endless. For the first time in my life, it was possible to turn the corner and run into an actor or filmmaker that I had admired for years, haphazardly blurting out some kind of glowing statement of adoration, receiving a polite smile from them, while their eyes darted around, looking for the quickest possible escape.
But more exciting than the people at the festival were the films. Instead of spending my free time off from interning hunting down celebrities in the streets, I spent most of those free hours in the dark, staring up at screens in any theater I could worm my way into. There were plenty of opportunities to catch current release films that were In Competition that year, but there was also the Classics series, a part of the festival that doesn’t get quite as much coverage but is just as exciting as the rest of the films screening.
I found myself one evening in a predicament that did not happen often while I was in Cannes, without any particular plans for what to do after my shift at the Pavillion ended. A friend of mine invited me to come along to a Classics screening with him. The film in question was Cleo From 5 to 7, Varda’s second feature narrative film after La Pointe Courte. I had no idea what the film was, or what it was about, but I found the title intriguing. Another intern overheard our conversation and said he had heard that it was one of the best Noir films ever made. I found out later that he had no idea what he was talking about, but that was many of the interns at the Pavillion that year, including myself: Talking as loudly as possible, trying to convince the other interns there that we knew what we were doing and deserved to be there.
I tagged along to the screening and found myself in love with the film from the opening frame. It was not, as I was led to believe, a legendary Film Noir, but that hardly put me off at all. In fact, I probably would have been less engaged with the film if it had been. The quiet, lovely film about the titular character, coming to terms with the fact that she may not have much time left in life, wandering the streets of Paris as she awaits a possible cancer diagnosis from her doctor needs no genre flourishes to be an absolute masterpiece. The film gracefully follows Cleo as she visits the people of her life and meets new faces, all while contemplating mortality and the meaning of life. It is impossible to imagine future films like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise existing if this film had never been made. When the lights came up, I was shaking with an excited jolt of inspiration. It was one of those films that made me realize that anything was possible. I could have run out of that theater and made a million movies with the energy it gave me.
After the film had finished, Agnes Varda was assisted down the aisles to the stage, where she shared her excitement over how beautiful the digital transfer of the movie looked. She rejoiced at how it looked just as crisp and clean as the day she premiered the film. After the Q&A, the audience turned into a sea of people, all rushing for the door in a mad rush to get to the next event or screening they were attending that evening.
In a fortuitous set of circumstances, my friend and I ended up being able to get close enough to Varda before she was ushered away to tell her how much we loved the film. She absolutely beamed at us and thanked us genuinely, returning to her admiration for the crew that worked on the restoration for the film. “It looked so crisp!” she said, with the wide-eyed wonder that is seen on the faces of children more than it is on the faces of adults. She thanked us again before she was motioned away, and we left the theater.
It was a brief moment, but it was genuine and pure. She didn’t have to tolerate two young film students bowing at her feet. She could have simply walked away if she wanted to. But she didn’t. She still wanted to talk about how much she loved seeing the film again, even if it was with two total strangers. She simply loved the movies, and she was simply kind.
In the years after Cannes, in every piece, I read on her, in every film I watched of hers, and in every interview with her I read, that was the overarching theme, her kindness, and her empathy. A shining personality like her’s can be rare in the film world. She was a genuine treasure whose presence will be missed, and who left behind countless cinematic examples of her ability to understand the people around her.
There are still so many of her films I have yet to see and I can’t wait to discover them. I’m grateful for finally discovering her, even if it took me forever, and I’m grateful that I was able to let her know just how much even one of her films impacted my life, and what makes it all better was how kind and wonderful she was.
Rest in peace, Agnes. You have earned it. And thank you again, for being kind.