For roughly 65 of the 90 years she walked among us mere mortals, Agnès Varda made movies. The petite photographer-turned-filmmaker was considered a card-carrying member of the nouvelle vague, even though her first feature, 1955’s La Pointe Courte, predated the French New Wave’s big bang. It was not uncommon to see Varda strolling around festivals well into her late eighties, a world-cinema éminence grise with a two-toned ‘do and a mile-wide smile. She made dramas, comedies, semi-musicals, documentaries and essayistic looks at everything from contemporary gleaners to her own creative process. Her work could be breezy, and blithe, and occasionally unflinchingly brutal (see Vagabond). When showed up in her own movies — and during her grandmotherly lioness-in-winter phase, she appeared onscreen quite often — you could feel the warmth emanating from the screen. Her passing in March of this year left behind an invaluable back catalog, and a hole that will never be filled.
The chance to spend a few more hours with the director is a gift, and if that was the all that Varda by Agnès provided for her legion of fans, that would still be more than enough. But this final work, culled from a number of lectures and public appearances she made in the last few years of her life, does more than let viewers enjoy the pleasure of her company a little but longer. It’s also a self-portrait, a film history lesson, a remembrance of things past, a perfect coda to her career, a moving scrapbook and a masterclass that now doubles as a memento mori. Those coming to her work as neophytes, or with only one or two of her films under their belts, will have their eyes opened to what Varda contributed to the art form. Those already converted may have a hard time watching her reminiscences through their own tears.
Not that the film is funereal: Varda was aware of her own mortality and the passage of decades (she mentions her failing eyesight and gets wistful about long-gone loved ones), but she doesn’t have any time to be mournful. Originally designed as a two-episode doc to be shown on French TV, it kicks off with a crowd filing into an auditorium and a blank chair before — poof! — Agnès magically appears. She holds court, here and in several other theaters, about life and death, but also her husband Jacques Demy, memories, art, children, cats, the necessity of collaboration and the one thing that seems to connect all of these together for her: cinema.
The conversations are free-ranging. We get insights into what is arguably her masterpiece, 1962’s Cleo From 5 to 7, and how she pivots to a more realistic style halfway through; how coming to California in the late ’60s exposed her to the Black Panthers and feminist politics; how filming everyday people, whether it’s graffiti artists in L.A. or shopowners on the Rue Daguerre, kept a sense of humanism thrumming through her doc work. Varda deep-dives into directing Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond and working with Jane Birkin on two projects in 1988. She also gleefully details prankish performance-art stunts, like turning the street outside her house into a beach, and an installation piece in which she dresses up like a potato.
It isn’t until she gets around to Faces/Places, the 2017 Oscar-nominated travelogue that found her and co-director/shutterbug/partner-in-crime JR driving around France’s backwoods, that you start sensing a hesitancy in her voice. It was a creatively inspiring project for Varda, and also a victory lap, but there’s the sensation that she knows the end may be creeping up on her. Varda by Agnès goes out not with a bang but a graceful farewell, as the director sits on a beach, a sandstorm whipping around her as vows to “disappear in the blur” and slowly fades from the image. That line isn’t what echoes in your head as the credits roll, however. It’s an earlier declaration that Varda says when asking about her profession: “We make films to share with audiences,” she notes. “How awful it’d be if they didn’t listen or watch.” We did. And thanks to Varda’s generosity, we were better people for it. Merci.