Nicknamed the Grandmother of the New Wave, Varda was a fixture for years at the Cannes Film Festival, where she presented more than a dozen films from 1958 to 2018. She took part in two Cannes juries, and the festival gave her an honorary Palme d'Or in 2015 for her life's work
French film director Agnès Varda, a trailblazer of the French New Wave and feminist activist, has died aged 90, her family said on Friday.
“The director and artist Agnès Varda died at her home on the night of Thursday ... of complications from cancer. She was surrounded by her family and friends,” the family said in a statement.
Varda's rich filmography includes films such as "Cléo From 5 To 7,” "Vagabond,” for which she won the Golden Lion in 1985, and "The Gleaners and I.” She was also a noted photographer, screenplay writer, actor and visual artist.
Nicknamed the Grandmother of the New Wave, Varda was a fixture for years at the Cannes Film Festival, where she presented more than a dozen films from 1958 to 2018. She took part in two Cannes juries, and the festival gave her an honorary Palme d'Or in 2015 for her life's work.
“Her work and her life are infused with the spirit of freedom, the art of driving back boundaries, a fierce determination and a conviction that brooks no obstacles. Simply put, Varda seems capable of accomplishing everything she wants,” the Cannes festival said at the time.
Varda was the first woman to receive such an honour and regularly sought more recognition for women in the industry.
At last year's Cannes Film Festival, she joined jury president Cate Blanchett for a bilingual speech against sexual misconduct in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
"Women are not a minority in the world, and yet our industry says the opposite. The stairs of our industry must be accessible to all. Let's climb," she said.
The Cannes festival tweeted that Varda's death was a cause for "immense sadness.”
"For almost 65 years, Agnès Varda's eyes and voice embodied cinema with endless inventiveness. The place she occupied is irreplaceable. Agnès loved images, words and people. She's one of those whose youth will never fade," the tweet continued.
An inspiration to female directors
With her distinctive half-red, half-gray hairstyle, Varda was instantly recognizable on the European film circuit, where she was often one of the few female directors in the crowd.
Varda was honoured last month at the Berlin Film Festival with the Berlinale Camera award for lifetime achievement. The festival had its highest number of women directors yet, some of whom named Varda as an inspiration.
Varda's 2017 documentary with street artist JR, "Faces Places,” was nominated for an Oscar – making Varda, then 89, the oldest person ever nominated – and won best documentary at the Independent Film Spirit Awards.
"There is nothing to be proud of, but happy," Varda said after the Oscar nomination. "I love my own work and I've done it for so many years, so I didn't do it for honour or money. My films never made money."
When she couldn't attend the Oscar nominees' luncheon, JR brought a life-sized cardboard cutout of her onto the red carpet with him.
Born in Brussels on May 30, 1928, Varda started as a photographer after studying Literature and Arts. In 1951, she was appointed official photographer of the Theatre National Populaire, and remained in that position for the next decade.
In 1954, well before Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut became the emblematic figures of the New Wave, Varda's first film, "La Pointe Courte,” followed a couple going through a crisis in the small port of Sete on the Mediterranean coast.
She made several documentary shorts, but inadequate funds prevented Varda from making her next feature, "Cléo From 5 To 7,” until 1961. She came to prominence with that film, a real-time movie about a young woman who may have cancer.
Backed by French businessman Georges de Beauregard, who had supported Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless,” the film studied Cléo's evolvement from a shallow pop star to an authentic human being capable of understanding pain in herself and others.
"Cléo" was again praised by critics and was a commercial success as well, building anticipation for "Happiness,” Varda's next film, which won the Silver Bear award at the 1965 Berlin Festival.
Varda continued to explore the themes of illness and life as a couple later in her career. Her biggest success came in 1985 with "Vagabond,” starring Sandrine Bonnaire, who plays the tragic role of young marginal wandering to her death.
The director had worked up to the end, with a new autobiographical documentary premiering at the Berlin Film Festival last month.
Varda was married to French director Jacques Demy, who died in 1990. She is survived by her two children, Mathieu Demy and Rosalie Varda, themselves both involved in French film-making.