“Viva Varda!,” at the Cinémathèque Française, represents yet another first for the late, beloved French filmmaker Agnès Varda (1928–2019): this is the first exhibition the Cinémathèque has devoted to the work of a woman filmmaker (the first solo show on a woman, Romy Schneider, was held only in 2022). Varda herself has long been recognized as the maker of the first Nouvelle Vague film, La Pointe Courte, in 1955.
The exhibition is a work of love: Varda’s children, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy, collaborated with curator Florence Tissot to create this intelligent, visually beautiful show. Varda herself looks down from the wall of the building in a mural by the street artist JR, her collaborator on the film Visages Villages (Faces Places). On the exhibition poster, a young Agnès sits demurely, photographed by Édouard Boubat, with a swirl of yellow, blue and fuchsia behind her, recalling the colors of her installation “Ping-pong, Tong et Camping,” part of a show she created in 2006, “L’Île et Elle,” at Paris’s Fondation Cartier. Of the many images of Varda in this show, my preference is for the one showing her in her prime, in mauve, which appears on the cover of the exhibition catalog published by Editions de la Martinière (full disclosure: I have a piece in it called “Varda and the Nude”).
Organized in five parts, the exhibition begins with “Varda and Images,” on her work as a photographer, her first profession; “Cinécriture,” her neologism for her almost literary screenwriting process; “Agnès’s Seven Families,” on her loved ones, including sculptor Valentine Schlegel, filmmakers, collaborators, her children and her dearly beloved husband, Jacques Demy; “Curieuse du Monde,” about her travels to places including Cuba and the United States, and her politics (definitively left wing); and a crucial final section, “Feminist, Joyful and Free,” about her militant feminism (“People sometimes ask me if I’m still a feminist, as if it’s a disease,” she once said) and friendship with actress, director and activist Delphine Seyrig.
The revelation of “Viva Varda!” in aesthetic terms is new photographic work, with many images never seen before, including a mesmerizing contact sheet of images of Varda herself, nude and pregnant with Rosalie. The intimacy of these shots and her seeming curiosity about her own nestlike softness and new anatomy underline the starkness and humanity of all her work, across media. Leaving these images to be seen now, along with so many until-now undisclosed documents from the archive of Ciné-Tamaris (the production company she founded in 1977 to ensure her independence as a filmmaker) is a characteristic act of generosity.
Varda’s Ciné-Tamaris DVD editions were famous for their lavish “boni” (an invented plural of bonus), which included small exhibitions of images and little-seen clips. “Viva Varda!” continues the tradition with roundtable discussions of her work, workshops for children and screenings at the Cinémathèque and on Netflix.
Rosalie and Mathieu have said that after the three lives of Varda – as a photographer, filmmaker and visual artist – this exhibition marks her fourth life: her legacy for lovers, students and cinephiles. Since 2019, she has been with Demy in the Montparnasse Cemetery, with blue hydrangeas, hearts and shells decorating the spot. Just close enough to enjoy the festivities this fall at the Cinémathèque.
See our list of Current & Upcoming Exhibitions to find out what’s happening in the Paris art world.Favorite