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French New Wave director Agnès Varda dies at 90

PARIS - Filmmaker Agnès Varda, a trailblazer of the French New Wave who became the first female director to receive the Academy's Governors Award for lifetime achievement, has died. She was 90.

Her production company Cine Tamaris confirmed her death on Friday after French media first reported the news.

Nicknamed the "Mother of the French New Wave," Varda's rich filmography of both fiction and non-fiction includes such movies as "Cleo From 5 to 7," "Vagabond" (for which she won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1985), "Jacquot de Nantes," "The Gleaners and I," and "Faces Places," which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature last year.

Varda was a longtime fixture at the Cannes Film Festival, where she presented more than a dozen films between 1958 and 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, becoming the first woman to receive such an honor.

FILE PHOTO: Filmmaker Agnes Varda reacts being awarded with an honorary Palme d'Or during the closing ceremony of the 68th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes
Film director Agnes Varda reacts after being awarded an honorary Palme d'Or at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, May 24, 2015. Regis Duvignau/REUTERS

She regularly sought more recognition for women in the industry. At last year's Cannes 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, Agnes Varda's eyes and voice embodied cinema with endless inventiveness. The place she occupied is irreplaceable. Agnes loved images, words and people. She's one of those whose youth will never fade," the tweet continued.

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 Francois Truffaut became the emblematic figures of the New Wave, Varda's first movie, "La Pointe Courte," followed a couple going through a crisis in the small port of Sete on the Mediterranean coast. The film was dismissed by some (Variety sniffed that it had been made by "a 25-year-old girl"), but it won her support to make several short films and documentaries, before directing her next feature, "Cleo From 5 to 7," in 1961.

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Corinne Marchand in "Cleo From 5 to 7." Criterion Collection

Backed by French businessman Georges de Beauregard, who had supported Godard's "Breathless," the film is the story, told in real time, of a young woman awaiting the results of a cancer screening.

"Cleo" was praised by critics and was a commercial success as well, building anticipation for "Le Bonheur," which won the Silver Bear award at the 1965 Berlin Festival.

Married to French director Jacques Demy ("The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"), Varda continued to explore the themes of illness and life as a couple. Her features included "The Creatures" (1966), starring Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli; and "One Sings, the Other Doesn't" (1977), about two female friends navigating the feminist movement.

She also worked on documentary films and anthologies, directing "Black Panthers," "Women Reply," "Daguerréotypes," and "The Beaches of Agnes," and contributing to "Far From Vietnam."  Her 1981 documentary "Murs Murs," about mural artists in Los Angeles and the walls they decorate, was shot as a companion piece to her fiction film, "Documenteur."

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Sandrine Bonnaire in "Vagabond." Criterion Collection

Her biggest success came in 1985 with "Vagabond," starring Sandrine Bonnaire in the tragic story of a young woman wandering to her death.

Her 1988 film "Le Petit Amour" (also known as "Kung-fu Master!") starred Jane Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and her own son, Mathieu Demy.

She also produced mixed media art installations, combining photography and video.

Varda's 2017 documentary with street artist JR, "Faces Places," was nominated for an Oscar, making Varda, then 89, the oldest person ever nominated. It won best documentary at the Independent Film Spirit Awards.

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Agnès Varda and photographer JR in "Faces Places" Cohen Media Group

"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 honor 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.

Varda was honored last month with a lifetime achievement award at the Berlin Film Festival, where her final film, the autobiography "Varda by Agnès," was shown. The festival had its highest number of women directors yet, some of whom named Varda as an inspiration.

Talking about the movie, which encapsulates her career with clips of her earlier films and interviews with collaborators, she remarked, "I'm very interested in other people, and in the film you saw a lot of people who have been so important to me … I have to prepare myself to say goodbye and go away."

Predeceased by her husband, who died in 1990, she is survived by her two children, Mathieu Demy and Rosalie Varda.