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Documenteur (1981)
Documenteur (1981)Courtesy the Criterion Collection

Five lesser-known films by French new wave legend Agnès Varda

The revolutionary director has been paving the way for women filmmakers for 60 years – here‘s some deep cuts from her oeuvre

Striding onto the scene in 1955 with La Pointe Courte, Agnès Varda’s radical approach to movie-making is considered by film stans to have kicked off the French New Wave (a.k.a. La Nouvelle Vague). Varda is a filmmaking icon, but her contribution has been downplayed (or full-on ignored) next to her male counterparts. On the heels of a two-month retrospective of her work at the BFI Southbank this month, the 90-year-old director’s voice is more powerful, and more deserving of our attention, than ever.

Since early in her career, Varda has been a devout feminist, and her films have confronted taboo subjects such as reproductive rights and radical activism in ways that were often decades ahead of her time. In May, she co-led a protest at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival to decry the mistreatment and lack of recognition for women in cinema. (She is still one of only two female filmmakers to have been awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes in its 71-year history.)

Here are five of Agnès Varda’s lesser-known films, that prove she is one of the most thought-provoking, ground-breaking directors of our time.

MUR MURS (1980) & DOCUMENTEUR (1981)

Varda spent two prolific periods of her life in Los Angeles – first in the late 1960s with her husband, director Jacques Demy, and later in the early 1980s with her son, after she and Demy were temporarily separated. Murs Murs and Documenteur both came from her later spell in California, and act as companions to each other, although they are also radically different.  

Murs Murs is a documentary that pays homage to the many murals of Los Angeles, and the primarily Chicano and African-American artists who painted them. Varda ventures to parts of the city that may be neglected in our cultural imagining of LA glamour, collecting stories that comprise a mystical, vibrant portrait of the city.

Documenteur, however, is the inverse of Murs Murs. Although Documenteur is a feature film and not a documentary, it flirts with the content of Murs Murs, and even casts that film’s editor, Sabine Mamou, as its star. The film follows Emilie, a French expatriate who has recently been separated from her husband, and is trying to survive in LA with their eight-year-old son Martin (played by Varda’s real life son Mathieu). Emilie ruminates on sadness and loss, collecting the faces and words of strangers, while working as a typist at a film company producing a fictionalised version of Murs Murs. Documenteur conveys Varda’s personal experience with isolation and motherhood, and is a rare vision of LA that problematises its mythology as a city of dreams.


In 1971, Varda signed the Manifesto of the 343, a declaration by French women admitting to having had illegal abortions and demanding robust changes to France’s reproductive laws.  Her 1977 film, One Sings, the Other Does Not (L’Une Chante, L’Autre Pas) is a tribute to the feminists who, like the director herself, fought for the legalisation of abortion in France.  

17-year-old Pomme and 22-year-old Suzanne meet in Paris in 1962, and the film chronicles their friendship through letters and documentary-like footage until a pro-choice demonstration 10 years later.

This is indisputably Varda’s most overtly feminist work, and was extremely controversial upon release. The director’s stylistic choices mirror the film’s radical content; Varda is more concerned with documenting her heroines’ realistic lives than creating a conventionally linear plot. One Sings, the Other Does Not culminates as a dedication to Rosalie, Varda’s daughter, who appears as Suzanne’s teenage daughter and a symbol of the ongoing fight for gender-based struggles. Oh, and also – it’s a folk-rock musical.


This documentary short is Varda’s way of demystifying the Black Panther Party during the height of their activism in the late 1960s. On the ground in Oakland, California, Black Panthers focuses on the effort to free Party co-founder Huey P. Newton from jail, the natural hair movement, and the abolition of police brutality.  

The film is edited in a reportage style, mimicking an expository news feature, but one that is sympathetic to the Panthers and their cause (unlike most American news coverage at the time). As an outsider to the United States and American political struggles, Varda’s point of view encourages watchers to question the reputation of the Panthers that was spread by the media.  


It is difficult to classify what genre, exactly, Jane B. for Agnès V. should fall under. The experimental film fêtes the 40th birthday of cultural icon, actress, and musician Jane Birkin, who was working with Varda on the film Kung Fu Master at the time that this was shot.  

Jane B. for Agnès V. is a commentary on what it means to be a muse, explained through fantastical sequences wherein Jane re-stages famous paintings, wraps her house in a giant pink bow, portrays Joan of Arc and Charlie Chaplin, and reflects on life, age, family, and fame. It’s all packaged together with a wildly imaginative aesthetic sense that could only belong to Varda, and it reminds us that women who are known as “muses” have far more depth and complexity than they are ever usually given credit for.

Revisit Varda’s iconic oeuvre now until July 31 at BFI Southbank with the series Agnès Varda: Vision of an Artist