If anyone were to appoint a Queen of cinema, Agnes Varda would probably be at the top of the list. Has there ever been a filmmaker more beloved among her colleagues, or more giving to the art of film? She certainly belongs in the pantheon of masters which is reserved for the likes of Ozu, Renoir, Kurosawa, and Fellini, along with her New Wave colleagues Truffaut and Godard.
When the light went out on Agnes Varda earlier this year, I, like many other film fans, was overcome with sadness, knowing that her beacon shone perhaps brighter than most in terms of a love for film. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and to her dying day, she never stopped creating, or sharing her work. It’s wonderful that mere months before her death, she was able to finish one final testimonial film Varda by Agnes to give to the world, and it is perhaps the best note anyone could hope to end on in such an established career.
Varda by Agnes is an artist’s personal reflection, about why they create the things they do, what drives them, and what inspires them. It’s a film about the artistic process and the importance it has on the world and life in general.
The film opens with Varda addressing an auditorium of documentary film students with a lecture on her life’s work. She begins with one of her short documentaries she made in the sixties on a distant relative entitled Uncle Yanco. She discusses the idea that began with the film, and being fascinated by her Uncle who she thought was a wonderful character to hone in on. It’s an interesting option to begin with, noting that it’s a film that reflects Varda’s autobiographical tendencies, but also her attraction to ecentric outsiders as a subject.
She then talks at length on her illustrious career taking time to discuss many of her more famous films but also addressing her interesting disappointments. She makes the point that even though some of her films were a success and some were not, she was always trying to do something different with each one, finding new ways to tell a story cinematically. For instance, in one such moment, she discusses what is arguably her most well-known film Cleo from 5 to 7, which follows a young woman around while she waits to find out whether or not she has cancer. Varda goes into great detail why she chose to make the film the way she did, because she wanted to focus on the concept of time, and wanting to capture it in a way films weren’t used to doing in that era.
In another instance, and one of the most poignant, she discusses the film she made about the life of her husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy entitled Jacquot de Nantes. She describes how she filmed recreations of Demy’s youth using actors and filming the scenes in black and white. She then makes the choice of cross cutting them with scenes out of Demy’s own films that were directly inspired by his own life. There is another touching layer to the film, when Varda adds extreme close up images of a dying Demy, which, as she states, was a way for her to be as close to him as possible.
Varda engages in more colorful anecdotes such as a time she directed Robert De Niro and Catherine Deneuve together for one day on a pond. She recalls how De Niro had one day to learn his lines in french but he went further than that by even getting the french dialect down prefectly which impressed Varda who comments on his professionalism.
There is also a conversation with actress Sandrine Bonnaire, who starred in one of her more harrowing films Vagabond playing a destitute who ends up dead in a ditch. During the interview Varda explains her reasons for filming a solemn story about an angry young homeless girl, why it interested her, but also the way in which she directed Bonnaire in the part where she doesn’t try to explain too much but rather lets her explore the character and do what comes naturally. The discussion is a very honest one of how a director approaches her subject with an actor as collaborator.
This fierce need to create would lead to new horizens which may surprise some who I’d no know that Varda, dipped her hand in all sorts of visual artistry and not just filmmaking. She explains that her career began as a photographer, and she became fascinated with telling a story through image. We then see later in life she turned her attention to installations, and visual art. One such piece she creates are rooms where the walls are made entirely out of recycled film prints, and the archways leading to them are made out of old film containers. Another is a memorial of her late cat (Varda was a huge cat person), which becomes an interactive visual art display for children to come and visit.
With this verve for life and creation Varda seems to have, it’s difficult to process that she is no longer with us. When she is shown on screen, she isn’t seen as a frail being who is on the verge of death, but rather a sparkling artist who never rested on her laurels. For me she is shown as a playful spirit, with a keen eye towards the curious where something always seemed to interest her. If one didn’t know this was to be her last film, it would be easy enough to imagine her somewhere working on another artistic endeavor and not showing one sign of slowing down.
Varda By Agnes is not only a portrait of an artist, but it’s also a comment on the lasting legacy of its creator. It’s film as autobiography and self-reflection which is something that is rather unique. We aren’t normally privy to films where the artist is willing to talk openly about their work in both an academic and creative way. Varda makes it amusing for us as viewers,playing with film conventions like they were toys to be explored and encouraging us to look at it the same way. I’m sure as artists, it would be difficult not to be inspired by Varda and how she constantly creates.
Although knowing this was her last film, and that she died mere weeks after its initial release, watching this never felt like a somber occasion. Perhaps Agnes Varda knew this might have been her last film and if she did, then I’m sure she wouldn’t have wanted tears of sorrow. It’s a film about the joy of creation, and how ones life can be shaped by their art. The final shot leaves on a perfect note of bittersweetness, which might have you smiling, but also may have you longing for one more film by this Godmother of cinema. I’m sure the best way to honor Agnes Varda would be to go create a work of art that you could share to the world. As she has shown through her work, it’s important not to let that creative spirit die as it is a part of us that thrives, and makes life worth living.
5 stars out of 5