By Joey Nolfi
March 29, 2019 at 08:22 AM EDT

French filmmaking legend Agnès Varda has died.

The trailblazing icon — a renegade female director who helped shape the French New Wave movement throughout the 1960s — was 90 at the time of her death, which was first reported by French media Friday morning before being confirmed by the Associated Press. A spokeswoman for Varda’s production company, Ciné-Tamaris, told The New York Times that she died from breast cancer.

Among Varda’s robust career, her most notable works are scripted New Wave staples like 1962’s Cleo from 5 to 7 — about a singer’s two-hour existential crisis while awaiting results from a cancer screening — and 1965’s Le Bonheur — about a young, unfaithful husband’s extramarital exploits. She turned her attention to shorts and documentaries throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, making her proper return to full-length theatrical fiction in the early 1980s with Documenteur: An Emotion Picture (1981) and the Venice Golden Lion-winning Vagabond (1985).

Film historians often credit her 1955 relationship drama La Pointe Courte with predating the visual style and narrative rule-breaking that would later become synonymous with the French New Wave aesthetic popularized by François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Luc Godard.

Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images

The final chapter of Varda’s career, however, saw her return to documentary features, crafting self-reflective films that touched on issues of philosophy, existence, and mortality. She was nominated for her first Oscar in 2018 for directing Faces Places, a warmly wrought road movie chronicling her trip through the French countryside with contemporary artist, photographer, and muralist, JR. The Academy presented her with an honorary Oscar for her contributions to the medium that same year.

Her last directorial credit is listed as a documentary series titled Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès in English), which reflects on her monumental career and approach to visual storytelling.

“I started totally free and crazy and innocent,” Varda told The A.V. Club in a 2009 interview. “Now I’ve seen many films, and many beautiful films. And I try to keep a certain level of quality of my films. I don’t do commercials, I don’t do films pre-prepared by other people, I don’t do star system. So I do my own little thing.”

Over the years, Varda was a Cannes Film Festival fixture, having presented 13 films at the prestigious cinema event over the course of 60 years between 1958 and 2018. She also participated in two Cannes juries, overseeing the main competition in 2005 and serving as president of the Camera d’Or jury in 2013. She received an honorary Palme d’Or — one of the most prestigious honors in global cinema — in 2015, becoming the first woman in history to attain the prize.

Varda was also active on social media, maintaining a charming presence on Instagram until a week prior to her death.

Through her art and activism, Varda also dedicated her career to advancing the cause for women’s rights in the film industry and beyond. At the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, she joined Cate Blanchett in giving a bilingual speech against sexual misconduct in the aftermath of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

“Women are not a minority in the world, and yet our industry says the opposite,” she said at the event, according to the Associated Press. “The stairs of our industry must be accessible to all. Let’s climb.”

Born on May 30, 1928 in Belgium, Varda (birth name Arlette, which she carried until age 18) studied art history at the École du Louvre and photography at the École des Beaux-Arts ahead of honing her skills as a photographer at Paris’ Théâtre National Populaire. 

She married fellow director Jacques Demy, who died in 1990, in 1962 after meeting him during her early days making movies. Varda is survived by two children, Mathieu Demy and Rosalie Varda — both of whom also work as filmmakers.

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