Varda was born Arlette Varda on May 30, 1928, in Ixelles (Brussels), Belgium, to parents Christiane and Eugène Jean Varda. Her mother was French and her father was a Greek refugee. She was the third child among her five siblings. At the age of 18, Varda altered her name legally to Agnès. As a teenager, she left Belgium in 1940 and escaped to Sète, France to live with the rest of her family. She studied art history and photography at the École des Beaux-Arts. She went on to work for the Théâtre National Populaire as a photographer.
Varda's films, photographs, and art installations focus on documentary realism, feminist issues, and social commentary with her individual experimental style. Her career pre-dates the start of the Nouvelle vague (French New Wave). In an interview, she stated that she desired to make films that related to her time, rather than focusing on traditions or classical standards. Thus, in 1977, Varda founded her own production company, Cine-Tamaris, in order to exercise more control in shooting and editing. The French New Wave movement was broken into two subgroups: the Cahiers du Cinema group and the Left Bank Cinema group. Because of her literary influences, and because her work predates the French New Wave, Varda's films belong more precisely to the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) cinema movement, along with Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Cayrol and Henri Colpi. The group was strongly tied to the nouveau roman movement in literature and politically was positioned to the Left. Its members would frequently collaborate with each other.
Varda's work is often reflected as feminist because of her use of female characters and creating a female cinematic voice. Numerous of her films use characters that are relegated or rejected members of society, and are documentarian in nature. Like many other French New Wave directors, Varda was likely influenced by auteur theory, creating her own signature style by using the camera "as a pen". Varda describes her method of filmmaking as cinécriture (cinematic writing or "writing on film"). The term was created by merging "cinema" and "writing" in French. Rather than untying the essential roles that contribute to a film (cinematographer, screenwriter, director, etc.), Varda believes that all roles should be working together instantaneously to create a more consistent film, and all basics of the film should contribute to its message. She claims to make most of her detections while editing, seeking the opportunity to find images or dialogues that generate a theme. Due to her photographic experience, still images are often of importance to her films. Photographs may serve symbolic or narrative purposes, and each element of them is significant. Sometimes there is conflict between still and moving images in her films, and she habitually mixes still images in with moving images. Varda pays very close care to detail and is highly mindful of the consequences of each cinematic choice she makes. Elements of the film are seldom just functional, each element has its own implications, both on its own and that it lends to the entire film's message. Many of her inspirations are artistic or literary. Some of her influences include surrealism, Franz Kafka, and Nathalie Sarraute. Film historians have cited Varda's work as central to the development of the French New Wave film movement; her uses of location shooting and non-professional actors were unconventional in the context of 1950's French cinema.
1955 La Pointe Courte
1962 Cléo from 5 to 7
1991 Jacquot de Nantes
2000 The Gleaners and I
1985 Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival
2009 César Award for best documentary film
2010 Directors' Fortnight's 8th Carosse d'Or award for lifetime achievement, Cannes Film Festival
2014 Leopard of Honour, Locarno Film Festival
2015 Palme d'Or, Cannes Film Festival