It’s likely that the pioneering director Agnès Varda, who died at age 90 on Friday, of complications from cancer, wouldn’t have taken it personally if you didn’t recognize her name. While considered the mother of the French New Wave, throughout much of her decades-long career Varda was mostly only known among cinephiles and Europeans. “I am in the margins of cinema,” she said in 2017. “The Hollywood system…I don’t belong to it.”
In the last years of Varda’s life, though, Hollywood welcomed her with open arms. The 2017 release of her documentary Faces Places, with her “partner in crime” the French street artist JR, made Varda the oldest person to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award, and brought her to the attention of the mainstream and quite a few A-list actors. (She joined Cate Blanchett, Ava DuVernay, and Kristen Stewart in a demonstration for gender parity at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and was captured dancing and grinning with Jennifer Lawrence and Angelina Jolie in ever-delightful photos of other red carpet appearances.)
But Varda was, of course, so much more than her antics in front of the camera. Born Arlette Varda in Belgium, she changed her to name to Agnès at age 18 and moved to Paris to take classes—which she later described as “stupid”—at the Sorbonne. She ended up spending most of her life in France, working first as a still photographer before making her first film, La Pointe Courte, in 1955. Even though Varda lacked any prior film experience, La Pointe Courte, along with Varda herself, has been regarded as the forerunner of the French New Wave, which emerged in the 1950s and ’60s.
Varda soon came to be known as the mother of the movement, though some of her techniques, like casting non-actors, set her apart as even more experimental than the rest. (She was part of the Left Bank group, as opposed to the New Wave’s more commercially successful directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.) Some of her films, like Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) and Vagabond (1985), were decidedly nonlinear—much more so than those of fellow Left Bank director Jacques Demy, to whom she was married from 1962 until his death in 1990.
Increasingly, Varda became known as an activist too. She created two films about the Black Panthers, and identified as a staunch feminist, which was reflected in her work and beyond: In 1971, she became one of the “343 sluts” who signed the “Manifesto of the 343,” joining Simone de Beauvoir and Catherine Deneuve in protesting France’s restrictions on reproductive rights by publicly sharing that they had had abortions.
When she wasn’t changing cinema or society, however, the director still had plenty of fun: Her decades-long fascination with potatoes is well documented, from her 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I to her installation Patatutopia, made up of 700 pounds of tubers. Occasionally, Varda even dressed up as a potato, though it was her slightly more conventional ensembles of head-to-toe Gucci that made the most waves during last year’s awards season—along with, of course, her signature two-toned bowl cut.
Still, it is her impact on the film industry for which Varda will be most remembered. “We need to draw strength from artists like Agnès—those women who went first, who took that first step, showed the way for all of us,” Angelina Jolie said before awarding Varda an honorary Oscar in 2017. (Upon taking the stage, after three other women had delivered their fawning introductions, Varda retorted, “Are there no men in this room who love me [enough] to speak up?”)
Varda was the first female director in history to be awarded an honorary Oscar—or, as she put it, a “side Oscar.” While speaking about the award to a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, she asked if her Oscar would be smaller than or the same size as the non-honorary ones.
“What is honorary? I have received an honorary César. I have received an honorary Palme d’Or in Cannes. So it’s like the Academy is saying, ‘That old lady has been working so continuously for cinema, at some point we should recognize that she worked,’” Varda said. And though she long maintained that her work hadn’t brought her a vast fortune, it did, she noted to the Times, land her with a “closet full of” awards. “I got a Golden Lion, I got a Silver Bear,” she said. “I got a lot of animals.”