A few years ago, I designed for myself a sort of one-woman film festival: the films of Agnès Varda. Then in her mid-80s, the prolific French New Wave filmmaker was having a bit of a moment (one that perhaps is still going, even after her death at 90 in March of this year), as she remained a vital, vibrant voice in film more than 60 years into her career.
Being the film nerd I am, and having no exposure to her work until then, I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. So I harnessed the resources at my disposal (read: the wonderful public library) and set about finding as many of her films as I could, watching them in the span of a month or so. I watched Cleo from 5 to 7, Daguerréotypes, Mur murs, Documenteurs and more, a sort of highlights reel of a very long, very diverse filmography. And to say I was mesmerized would be an understatement, as each one both entertained and enlightened me in equal measure. I was watching a narrative unfold, yes (even in documentaries, there’s a story arc to follow), but I was also coming to understand through her work just what an artist, a true visionary the woman was. She made her first film in 1955, and worked throughout the 1960s alongside the likes of Godard and Demy (the latter she married and had a son with), holding her own all the while. At the time of her death, she had no fewer than 55 directing credits to her name.
Opening in theaters this week, Varda by Agnès is the filmmaker’s final project, part masterclass in storytelling and perspective, part reflection on a memorable, legacy-making career. Directing a film about oneself and one’s contributions to the most influential art form of our time isn’t something just anyone can do. Few people at all, even fewer women. But Varda has always been a part of her films, directly or otherwise (she often provides voice-overs for projects where she’s not, as in others, front and center with the subjects), so it doesn’t seem odd at all that her final project would essentially amount to sitting down for tea and a chat with the woman herself.
Compiled from a number of conversations on stages in auditoriums or classrooms or elsewhere, Varda walks us more or less chronologically through her work, introducing themes as they arise or queuing up a clip or two as appropriate. She explains with care how Cleo from 5 to 7 came to be, how she filmed actress Corinne Marchand’s every step and every look, that the truth of each moment mattered to her. She recalls how captivated she became with the potato after making The Gleaners and I that the root vegetable became a focal point of art installations in the years to come. She even put herself in a potato suit on one occasion, to help generate interest. (Note to indie filmmakers: if you’re not in a potato suit to promote your film, are you even doing it right?)
Occasionally, Varda is joined by a friend or former colleague, and they talk together about their shared memories and experiences. One of the most poignant moments in the film comes as she reunites with Vagabond actress Sandrine Bonnaire and the two recount the grueling filming circumstances, each hoping for the best. In that moment, Bonnaire is all of us as she reassures Varda some 40 years later that she would have done (and essentially did) anything the filmmaker asked of her, anything to be a part of creating something so special, meaningful and worthwhile. Varda’s response is as playful as it is charming, a genuine moment shared between artists and friends.
At over two hours long, Varda by Agnès is being released theatrically in the U.S., though it’s listed as a two-episode miniseries on sites like IMDb. It’s easy to see why it might be broken up into two parts, but it needn’t be. Enjoyed in a single sitting, it’s exactly the type of cinematic tour anyone with an interest in film will certainly enjoy, and one that anyone who understands what it means to look back on one’s life will too. Agnès Varda accomplished quite a lot in her years behind (and in front of) the camera, a woman of vision who always managed to see something new, interesting and valuable in everything and everyone.
Recounting her adventures with the installation artist JR, her filmmaking partner in 2017’s Faces Places (and easily one of the best documentaries of the decade, if anyone’s making a list…), it’s clear that even into her final years, she remained as sharp and thoughtful as ever, seeing the world as one of potential, even in its impermanence. That she departed this world with Varda by Agnès as her final work is as fitting an ending as any she ever filmed.
Varda by Agnès is now playing at the Music Box Theatre.
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