There are few directors that have had a career as varied and as colourful as Agnès Varda. From documentaries to fiction, from leading the French New Wave to visual art exhibitions about potatoes – Agnès Varda has maintained a consistent outpouring of groundbreaking cinema since 1955, with her first film La Pointe Courte.
Varda by Agnès has an underlying tone of a guest university lecture or a Ted Talk – Varda is sat on a stage for most of the film speaking to a vast audience, her speech interspersed with clips from her catalogue of films. Rather than distancing the viewer (as Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth tends to do at times), the effect is one of intimacy. Varda might be talking to a room packed full of people, but there’s a genuine sense she is talking to every single individual. In between the clips, Varda explains her creative choices, focusing in particular her ‘cine-writing’, the way in which she writes her films. This is not meant to refer solely to the practice of screenwriting, more so the image as a whole and the meaning it produces for an audience.
Varda is often integrated within these clips, and not without the humour the director is so well known for. This leads to some beautiful moments, such as Varda explaining how she directed the multiple tracking shots in Vagabond whilst sat on a dolly and track, rolling sideways through a field. Or discussing the wonders of potatoes, as she takes us through a retrospective of her visual art pieces, including a surprisingly emotional shrine for the family cat.
Though Varda by Agnès was clearly intended to be her final film, there is also something quite uncanny about the set-up. Towards the end, Varda muses about her life and her death as if she is foreshadowing that which has come to pass. It’s undeniably sad – to see Varda’s work given the credit it so well deserves just reiterates the monumental loss of such a talented artist – but at the same time there is no room for sadness, only for that wonderful radical empathy that Varda sews into the lining of so many of her films. Her stories about moving to Hollywood and how she became acquainted with the Black Panthers (posing as a french journalist, no-body seemed to take any notice) is just one of the charming yet powerful recollections which make up such a fascinating life and career.
Suitable either for Varda aficionados or for those who’ve never seen any of her films, Varda by Agnès walks a unique line. The retrospective elements give little away in terms of the films’ narratives, Varda prefers instead to immerse her audience in her thoughts about film-making, the elements she struggled with and her reasoning for certain creative decisions. In this sense, Varda by Agnès might be the perfect film to start with on one’s journey through Varda’s cinema – one will be immensely well prepared for a voyage into some of the greatest works of art to date.
Yet, those who know and love Varda’s work will be left the most satisfied by her final film. It’s a joyful (and sometimes cheeky) ode to a phenomenal woman and a legendary director. It’s only right that she was able to curate the final images we see of her. Here’s to you, Agnès.
Dir: Agnès Varda
Scr: Agnès Varda
Cast: Agnès Varda, Sandrine Bonnaire, Jane Birkin , Herve Chandes
Prd: Rosalie Varda, Dany Boon, Joey Fare
DOP: Claire Duguet, Francois Decreau, Julia Fabry
Running Time: 115 mins
Varda by Agnes is in cinemas now.