Of all the new wave directors, it is perhaps Agnès Varda who best understood the power of landscape. While the likes of Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, and Varda’s husband Jacques Demy were all united by their preference for filming on-location, few of them were able to use those locations to reveal the hidden depths of their protagonists in quite the same way as Varda.
It’s all there in her touching documentary, The Beaches of Agnès, which opens with a shot of the director walking backwards along a beach just outside her birthplace of Brussels. With this simple visual metaphor, she tells us that she intends to retrace her life not through conversations and documents but through place, specifically the places that made her. “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes,” she says. “If we opened me up, we’d find beaches.”
For Varda, landscapes have the power not only to spark reminiscences but to retain the imprints of the people who inhabit them, to hold the memory of a person in the same way a reel of film is capable of distilling a human life. In her filmography, it is not Varda’s characters who haunt landscapes, but vis-versa. Whether it’s the vineyards of Bouche-du-Rhone, the teal waters of the Côte d’Azur or the streets of Paris, Varda’s landscapes envelop those who wander them.
Below, you’ll find five unique locations that have appeared in Varda’s filmography at one point or another, from her early work in narrative cinema to her documentaries and beyond. So, pack your bags – we’re off on a trip around France in the footsteps of Agnès Varda.
Captivating locations from Agnès Varda’s filmography:
Domaine Grand Fontanille, Saint Ettiene
Key Film: Vagabond
The world captured in Varda’s 1985 film Vagabound is a far cry from the manicured cityscapes of the French New Wave. Filmed in the limitless wine country around Gard, Hérault and Bouches-du-Rhône, this Venice Film Festival-winner tells the story of Mona, a young drifter found frozen to death in a ditch at the beginning of the film. While piecing together Mona’s story in a series of flashbacks recounted by those who met her on the road, Varda captures the skeletal beauty of the southern French countryside from the depth of winter to the budding days of spring.
Perhaps the most captivating location we see Mona traipse across is the vinyards around the Domaine Grand Fontanille, an ancient estate perched on the steep foothills of the Alpilles. Surrounded by sun-soaked pine forests and dense oak groves, the 4.5 hectares that make up the vineyard are rich in flora and fauna, which is exactly what makes this stunning quarter of Saint-Étienne such a perfect place to grow red and rosé wines.
Key Film: La Pointe Courte
Arguably one of the most influential and underrated films of the French New Wave, La Pointe Courte launched Agnès Varda’s film career in 1955. This forensic exploration of a marriage on the cusp of collapse takes place in a small fishing village on the coast of the Mediterranean. As Varda documents the tidal rituals of the locals, her love of the coast really comes to the fore, her camera unable to resist the sumptuous beauty of Sète.
With its pastel palette of dock-fringed townhouses and numerous canals, Sète is one of the many glimmering jewels that line this stretch of Occitania. The town lies at the foot of Mount St. Clair, nestled between the Gulf of Thau and the Mediterranean. It’s a hike to get to the top, but once you reach the summit, you’ll find eye-watering views of the town below, which can be spied from the Chapel of Notre Dame de la Salette. At the summit, you’ll also find ‘Quartier Haute’, an old portion of the town once inhabited by Italian fishermen and which is now home to many of Sète’s artists, whose studios are often open to the public.
Saint Tropez, Côte d’Azur
Key Film: Du côté de la côte
If there’s one film to make you dream of sipping cool white wine on some sun-soaked veranda, it is surely Du côté de la côte. Shot in 1958 and funded (surprise surprise) by the French Tourist Office, this short documentary is perhaps one of Varda’s most lavish and endearing works. It sees the director take her camera to the sun-burnt beach bathers, the oh-so-suave restaurant diners, and the children playing in the foam and deliver a charming piece of documentary filmmaking that looks good enough to eat.
Du côté de la côte was filmed in both Nice and Saint Tropez, the latter of which was once a favourite spot of Henri Mattise, Paul Signac and Pierre Bonnard. By the time Varda got to this blood-orange portion of the French Riviera, however, it was beginning to attract the international ‘jet set’.
Today, the footfall of the elite tends to put most holidaymakers off Saint Tropez, but don’t be fooled. Groaning with delicious restaurants, art galleries, museums, and interesting markets, this coastal paradise is still well worth visiting, especially in the autumn months when the crowds have subsided.
Key Films: Jacquot of Nantes
Released in 1991, Jacquot of Nantes is a love letter to Varda’s husband, the director Jacques Demy, who fell ill before he was able to make the film himself and died in 1990. Varda decided to realise the project for him, so set about crafting a portrait of the artist as a young man that would also serve as a tribute to his cinematic legacy. Set in his childhood hometown of Nantes, this stunning combination of narrative and documentary filmmaking traces Demy’s young life during the Nazi occupation of the city.
For many years, Nantes was not a city that attracted many tourists. During the Second World War, it was practically flattened by Allied bombs, and for much of the 1970s and ’80s, the city was regarded as something of a cultural dead zone. Since then, however, Nantes has been transformed into one of France’s most enticing cultural centres, offering a rich nightlife and a stunning selection of historical, artistic, and culinary delights. That’s to say nothing of Nantes’ stunning architecture and sweet riverside neighbourhoods; Les Bordes de l’Erdre, for example.
The Streets of Paris
Key Film: Cléo de 5 à 7
A time capsule of 1960s Paris, in Cléo de 5 à 7 Agnès Varda captures the speed of the city in real-time. Tracing a singer’s walk around the streets of Paris as she awaits the test result of a biopsy, this blend of cinema vérité and melodrama is surely one of the most emblematic films of the new wave era. It even features cameos by Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina.
Much like Godard’s Breathless, the city in Cléo de 5 à 7 serves as an essential member of the ensemble. While Paris might not have the dialogue that Cleo does, it speaks in other ways, revealing facets of its inhabitants with maternal intuition. One of the most enchanting spots we see Cleo wander through is Parc Montsouris in the 14th arrondissement. Studded with Weeping Beech, Horse Chesnut and the odd Silk Tree, the park is one of the largest green spaces in Paris and often hosts live concerts in the summer months. In the autumn, the Montsouris reservoir, which holds around a third of the drinking water consumed by Parisians, is opened to the public.
With its winding, lamp-lit passageways, the tank of Montsouris is a cathedral of water located beneath the park itself. Those confused about why a site hidden from the public for 364 days a year is so aesthetically pleasing should bear in mind that the subterranean reservoir served as its creator’s (Eugène Belgrand’s) secret bachelor pad, accessible only via a custom-built gondola.