Berlin 2019: Varda by Agnès review


Varda by Agnès contains the best parts of Agnès Varda: work, wit and wisdom. Though it does not reach the heights of her gloriously charming last film, Faces Places, it is still a cathartic, bittersweet swansong from one of cinema’s most endearing and adored auteurs.

The film begins most unusually. The title appears, and the full “end” credits roll for a good five minutes, through every team and person involved in the production. What can sometimes feel like an afterthought now occupies the best of our attention. Is this Varda’s way of expressing gratitude for all the people she has worked with? Or is this also a message from her: We are beginning at the end?

Turning 91 this year, Varda is keenly aware of age and aging, and all the time that has gone by. Varda by Agnès is delivered as a public lecture in a theatre for the most part, but also draws clips from her previous work. She waxes lyrical about time, musing over its meanings and mechanisms. When she reflects on Jacquot de Nantes, the 1991 film she made based on her late husband Jacques Demy, she is resolute, defiant even, in the face of life’s cruel clock – we cannot stop time nor deny death, but we can “accompany time”.

We can be present, be witnesses to each moment, even if we cannot stop the horrors and tragedies that time inflicts on us and our loved ones. Importantly, film is Varda’s way of “accompanying time”, etching people and places into celluloid and megabytes, marking life and love, even if only in disembodied, moving images. Film helps Varda accompany time, and all who inhabit and exist within time for her – Jacques Demy, beaches, potato costumes, Cléo, children, her family cat. Film is perhaps a little less mortal.

Varda is also obsessed with the experience of seeing. She forces us to look, and then look again. She wants us to see how little things can reverberate with great weight, the poetry in the mundane. Here, a few birds on a beach; there, the frothing endless sea; beyond, the great wide world full of life and adventure. She shares the delicate orchestration behind the direction of her films, like a magician committing the ultimate sin of disclosing the tricks of the trade. But in these revelations, Varda helps us to see better the contours, shapes, motions and colours that make up our world.

Echoes of the French New Wave’s auteur philosophy continue to resonate, as Varda brings up her concept of cinécriture, a combination of the French words for “cinema” and “writing” – “cine-writing”. It is a vision of filmmaking that emphasises the purposeful, deliberate unity of its composition and decision, no matter how disparate its elements (eg. image, sound, music, costume) may seem. Varda by Agnès then, is best seen through these cinécriture lenses – a complex writing process, embedded in the unique language of film. This “cine-written” film unfolds to become several things: a memoir, a love letter to film, a reflective manifesto not just on cinema, but also on life.

While the lecture style and talking-head format feel a little too heavy at times, perhaps this is what Varda decided would be most cathartic for her sixty-plus years in cinema. Here we behold the full force and character of Varda, watching her take stock of her life’s work and imparting wisdom that cinephiles the world over will cling to for years to come. She represents the best parts of us – the little child that never lost her sense of wonder, yet also the wise grandmother that instructs with love and teaches with wisdom.

After all the awards Varda has received, and the tomes of literature that others have written on her, Varda by Agnès, aptly titled, is a carefree, bold and resounding attempt to self-define and articulate the themes, concerns and intentions of her work. A reclamation of her narratives – reel and real. Varda gets the last word here, but we can only hope that there will be much more from her to come.

Sara Merican

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