The announcement of Agnès Varda's death this year was news I had been bracing for, considering her advancing years, but that did not stop me from murmuring a little "oh no" at the screen of my laptop. Varda was a popular personality among film buffs, both young and old, especially on social media after 'Faces Places' came out and JR sent a cardboard cutout of her to the Academy Awards' luncheon. But she was a lot more than a meme or a cute little old lady.
Varda once told a story about a film magazine referring to her as the "ancestor" of French New Wave. She was about 30 years old at the time, already being relegated to the role of some kind of mythical elder.
I have always thought that one of the reasons she got less recognition than she deserved was become of her versatility. Her film style and themes were never as easily recognizable as someone like Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, or Bresson. Her fingerprints were always there, but they weren't as obvious on a superficial level. She created new aesthetics and dealt with different themes for each movie she made. It's telling, though, that so many better-known directors got clear inspirations from her films, like the most iconic shot from 'Persona', which was near identical to one from 'La Pointe Courte' over ten years earlier.
If anyone hasn't already seen them, I highly recommend 'Cleo from 5 to 7', 'Vagabond', 'Le Bonheur', 'The Gleaners and I', and 'The Beaches of Agnes'. Her films aged a lot better than many of her contemporaries. One thing her films really emphasise is her love for people - a lot of French New Wave, particularly Godard, seems more concerned with ideas than people. Not Agnès Varda, her films were as bright as any could be.
She was a master.
'Varda by Agnès' begins with the appearance of the title and the full "end" credits, which roll for through every person involved in the production. To watch the last film by Varda before she passed away at the age of 90, we begin at the end.
The film is delivered as a public lecture in a theatre for the most part, primarily recorded at the Angers Film Festival and at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris. They cover the director's output in the 20th and 21st centuries respectively, and the film draws on clips from her previous work, as well as photographs and conversations. While the thought of a filmed lecture might not seem all that engaging, Varda is such a warm and charismatic figure that it's impossible to not be transfixed by her.
A kind of spiritual sequel to 'Faces, Places', the film has a stream-of-consciousness quality. Varda spends the entire time talking about envisioning, making, and sharing art - mainly cinema - and exactly what it was that inspired her to make each film and the decisions she made along the way. When she reflects on 'Jacquot de Nantes', she is resolute that we cannot stop time nor deny death, but we can "accompany time" via film.
What makes 'Varda by Agnès' particularly enjoyable is how openly she talks about everything that drives her as a creative person.
What makes 'Varda by Agnès' particularly enjoyable is how openly she talks about everything that drives her as a creative person. Throughout her entire life, she has done whatever she wants to do. She makes films, and tells stories, and lives her life the way she wants and does so effortlessly. This film doesn't get into her early years, nor does it waste any time trying to explain how she does this. As a documentarian, she doesn't like talking about herself as much as she enjoys talking about her experiences - all the people she has met, and how they have influenced and inspired her. And she expresses herself with crystal clarity, describing exactly what it takes to be inspired, and exactly how she took this person and created a film about them.
Varda talks about her concept of "cinécriture" (a combination of the French words for "cinema" and "writing") that emphasises the purposeful unity of its composition, no matter how disparate its elements (such as images, sounds, music and so on) may seem. Her final "cinécriture" film unspools to become a memoir, a love letter to film, and a reflection not just on cinema, but also on life.
The lecture style and talking-head format might feel a little heavy at times, but it allows the audience to watch a legend of cinema take stock of her life's work and share some last bits of wisdom. Perhaps most likely to be of interest to cinephiles and film buffs, 'Varda by Agnès' is an ultra-accessible piece of work which, on viewing, feels like listening to a wise and much loved grandmother speak for nearly two hours.