Agnès Varda, the queen of the meme

Cats, strange vegetables, street art, foraged food, feminism and playful ironic self-reflection: these things are at the heart of Instagram culture, but Agnès Varda, the veteran French-Belgian documentary-maker, was filming them years ago. Although the grande dame of the French New Wave, it’s now at the age of 90, and with the superb Faces Places, that her legacy is being fully rediscovered. A touring cinema programme and a Curzon Home release of some of her early work is bringing her to wider attention.

Varda’s later-life documentaries are personal and playful, an older woman looking back at a life of curiosity amid major social change. The Gleaners and I (2000), in which she riffs on the traditional French idea of those who scavenge after harvests, gets all the attention. For me, it’s The Beaches of Agnès (2008) that’s the magical one.

In it, Varda reflects on her love of seaside locations, and uses the beaches of her youth as a backdrop for restaging memories of love and loss while playing games and pondering creativity. Mixing archive clips, observational material, constructed fantastical sequences and to-camera reminiscences, she roams the country, musing on interesting random encounters.

One moment she’s sailing down the Seine; the next, she’s walking around dressed as a potato in her own art exhibition. It could be twee, this national treasure having fun with her memories. But Varda is sharp and no pushover. She has strong opinions on being an artist, on feminism, on the need for culture-makers to depict the working class with dignity, and on the importance of film-makers and artists being part of social change [ . . . ]

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