Film Review: Varda by Agnès


The cinema of Agnès Varda endures beyond time. Whether this is her first feature La Pointe Courte or the digitally playful The Gleaners & I, Varda’s cinema has always existed in its own unique space. After sadly passing away in March this year a month after her latest feature Varda by Agnès premiered at Berlinale, her loss was greeted with a universal outpour of emotion from cinephiles.

Through the magic of cinema, Varda by Agnès conjures its titular director back onto screens for one last outing. Akin to her work in Jacquot de Nantes, memorializing her husband Jacques Demy’s life in a time capsule, her final film achieves a similar endgame. Varda, as always, deploys her camera to use as a mirror upon life and human nature its very self.

Unlike her previous documentary work, the film plays out as a series of self-reflective talks. Staged as she sits in front of audiences at numerous cinemas across France, one would be mistaken to think this a Masterclass series or even an artistic TedTalk. Initially commencing on her beloved beaches, surrounded by a cartoonish cardboard cutout of seagulls, the iconography of her artistic style shines through from its first frame to its last.

As for the title of the film, it constructs a duality in her artistic persona. Varda is the revered creative and Agnès the woman consumed with cats and beaches. Granted these two personalities bleed into one another, yet it is difficult to ignore the self-referencing title as anything else than a final autobiographical signature on film. This view is placed under further contemplation via conversations reflecting her career in film, art installations and photography. The whole affair does not feel repetitive, even though similar themes have been dissected in other autobiographical works as Faces Places and The Beaches of Agnès. Combined with these films, it is hard not to be swept away by Varda’s unfiltered meditations on her life, art and human emotion. Rendering the passage of time as a painful yet serene experience, Varda by Agnès comprehends what it means to be a human with a natural flair for creative output.

Considering her art, all with unparalleled clarity, her exposes lead her down paths contemplating Hollywood’s calling in the 1960s, the fear of turning 80 and creative partnerships with actors as Sandrine Bonnaire. It is Varda’s humility and humbleness in considering her artistic endeavours that become so stirring. Even at 90 years old her joyous smile and impassioned nature for cinema light up the screen, even in simply blocked shots of her on stage. This is a stark contrasted to the dark and decrepit approach to cinema Jean-Luc Godard has established for himself in later life via The Image Book. Even now knowing of Varda’s death, the whole affair transcends melancholy and becomes a true celebration of everything that made her such a creatively giving artist and human being.

In diving into the technical process of capturing tracking shots in Vagabond, Varda offers new insights into her work as a director. This point equally extends to the creation of her installation Tros pieces Sur cour: La Serre du Bonheur in Paris. Accessing behind the scenes footage of her team assembling the exhibition in Paris, these two sequences add a newly discovered tangibility to her whole work. Even in exploring her affiliation with capturing normal people’s lives, thus sharing their marginalised stories, Varda too places the craft of her cinema, (coined as cinécriture by herself) at the fundamental core of this poignant scrapbook collection.

After starting her career with La Point Courte and Cléo from 5 to 7, it is fitting that the director eloquently completes her filmography with a comparable tale on the ephemeral nature of love, life and creation. Although in recent years her presence has become a slightly more comical one, all thanks to memes, one cannot forget the veracity of life that is uncovered when watching any Varda film. To cling onto and cherish Varda by Agnès as a final bow to her beloved audiences feels essential to informing further new audiences on how to express one’s creativity with a profound humility for all human beings. Even in her sorely missed absence from this world, Varda will continue to inform how we respect one another, whilst maintaining an innate desire to create, reflect and engage with art.

Alasdair Bayman