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Semester 1

Film at the Margins: The Cinema of Agnès Varda (Ordinary) (ELCF09040)


European Languages and Cultures - French





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Equivalent proficiency in French language and literary/cultural study to pre-requisite requirement for University of Edinburgh students. (The course is taught through the medium of French.) Entry is subject to a language proficiency test within the relevant subject area during week 1 and at the discretion of the Course Organiser.

Course Summary

This course provides students with the opportunity to study the extensive body of work produced by one of France's best-known and most respected film directors, Agnès Varda. The course will explore a diverse range of the films she made during her career, from her earliest work, which anticipated the French New Wave movement of the late 1950s/early 1960s, to the films she made as a mature director exploring women's experience through a feminist lens, to her most recent documentary work on ageing. The course's focus on marginalisation and lives lived at the margins reflects the signature preoccupations of Varda's cinema.

Course Description

Agnès Varda (1928-2019) emerged as a fully-fledged film-maker, yet as an outsider to the French film industry in 1956, when she made her first film. She went on to become one of France's best-known and most respected film directors, straddling the divide between documentary and fiction, and making both short and feature-length films. Often described as the 'mother of the New Wave', Varda was known from the very start of her career as a remarkable innovator of the filmic form, developing themes and filmic techniques in her films of the 1950s that would later become signature preoccupations of the iconic French New Wave cinema movement. Beyond this achievement, Varda's films, made over a period of more than 60 years, offer a set of reflections on modern life unmatched in their breadth of perspective by any other film director working in French cinema. Varda wrote, 'je suis une marginale née' [I was born marginal], and one of the distinctive traits of her film-making is her interest as a director in the experiences of those citizens who are marginalised within society. In male-dominated western European societies, this includes women, and Varda is known for her feminist interventions within and beyond the cinema, having made numerous fictional feature films and documentaries concerned with women's rights.Varda's internationalist outlook, political awareness and interest in marginal lives is also expressed in a series of documentary films that chronicle her encounters with a variety of different groups living - or considered to live - at the fringes of society. During the 1960s, these included Californian hippies and the African American civil rights activists, the Black Panthers; in later films, Varda's preoccupation shifts to the economically marginalised fellow citizens that she finds in France, and her work traces the lives of the poor, the destitute and the homeless, as well as those of overlooked rural communities threatened by globalisation and the often technologically-drive changes to traditional industries that lie at these communities' heart.The richness of Varda's film-making extends still further: another recurrent interest of hers is autobiographical film-making, and several of her films chronicle, directly or indirectly, key events in her life, such as her experience of becoming a mother, ageing, and being widowed (following the death of her husband, fellow film director, Jacques Demy). This course will provide students with the opportunity to undertake an in-depth study of Varda's cinematic work, encompassing not only to the great diversity of Varda's thematic preoccupations in her films, and her use of a variety of film forms, but also to the production contexts, and the wide range of cinematographic techniques and narrative strategies in evidence in her extensive body of filmic work. In this way, students will be able to develop an extensive understanding of how these features contribute to the cinematic meanings and messages emerging from Varda's films, and how these elements affect film production more widely. Similarly, the course's focus on Varda's handling of the generic conventions relating to fictional feature-length films on the one hand, and documentary films on the other, will enable students to develop broader insights into the implicit assumptions associated with these two modes of film-making, particularly in relation to how films convey ideas about truth and what is real. Taking its lead from the content of Varda's own highly reflective and often political films, this course will require students to engage in complex interrogations of the possibilities and limits of the filmic form as they study Varda's cinema, and to be able to communicate their ideas on these matters through the medium of the French language. Accordingly, the seminar format, with an emphasis on group discussions in response to set readings and preparatory work done by students in Autonomous Learning Groups, along with the assessment tasks, is designed to facilitate the incremental development of a sophisticated understanding and articulation of the ways in which films may serve as philosophical reflections on social problems, cultural difference, personal experience, and much more besides.

Assessment Information

Written Exam 0%, Coursework 100%, Practical Exam 0%

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