Varda By Agnès has a unique emotion running underneath it. On surface, it may appear to be a joyful introspection of a celebrated auteur’s career; but there’s a deeper level of emotion bubbling below. The documentary is the final work that Varda directed in her lifetime before her death in March at the age of 90. The film reflects on the mindset of a person who understands that her brief time on this Earth is coming to a close. Varda herself narrates us through the various stages of her career, including her most celebrated films such as Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond, along with her art installation pieces. Her lively tone and jolly appearance, like the good witch of a Ghibli animated story, makes even the saddest moments (including the slow death of beloved husband Jacques Demy) have a sliver of hope behind them.
If there’s any drawbacks; the structure of the film does cause it to drag in the second hour, and it does feel at times more like a glorified TED Talk than a documentary film. Varda did give a TED Talk at one point in her life, but this film was clearly crafted more for her devoted fans, such as yours truly. It’s stuffed with moments where Varda delves into the specifics of her craft, including a long take showing her on a moving camera where she explains the use of tracking shots in Vagabond. It’s a deeply heartfelt farewell to one of the giants of cinema; a legend who has gone to rest having made the world a better place.
Revolutionist, visionary anarchist, and proud feminist, Agnès Varda was arguably one the greatest living artists working today. After her unfortunate passing on March 29th, 2019, the entire film community and industry was grieving the loss of a master and her extensive career that can’t ever be replicated or repeated. Varda made history with her stories of self-independence and female empowerment. Each of her films are lush with gorgeous hypnotic visuals that entrap her audience into a brain wave of innocence, reality, and raw emotion. Her final film Varda By Agnès is the perfect epilogue to her grand career. Imagine watching a masterclass with Varda at center stage, in which she details her work, relationship with Jacques Demy, trials and tribulations with her art installations, successes with her innovative film stock shacks, and as well many other details, including her extravagant abstract experimentations.
Beauty is lurking through every detail that Varda highlights in each live audience “TED-Talk” lectures. For instance, I had no idea that DeNiro worked on his sleep cycle for four consecutive days, just for a one day shoot with Catherine Deneuve and Varda; and that he was such a fan of Varda’s respective filmography and body of work in the first place. Also, the image of Varda dressed up in a potato costume at the Venice Film Festival is particularly endearing and shows her dedication to the promotion of her work. Even with the occasional moment of adorable levity, she analyzes her entire career, including multiple discussions on her more obscure pieces of art. A particular scene that still moves me deeply is explanation behind the Cat Burial installation. The thought of the local children being mesmerized by a sensorial piece of such solemness and nostalgic magnitude, just adds to Varda’s understanding of humanity and its various strange struggles.
The real question that remains is the purpose of Varda by Agnès. I love Varda deeply, yet the demographic for this is obscurely convoluted. At least 30% of this film is made out of clips of Varda’s prior films and additional documentary footage. Although it’s certainly pleasing to view her work once again on the big screen in a collective compilation, for any Varda or French New Wave fan; what remains is a repetitive project of self-reflection. Varda is a genius, yet there’s no doubt that her final film feels stretched out and slightly inaccessible for any average viewer who’s interested in learning about her work.
The film ends in a cloud of smoke, from a scene from Faces Places. As the film wraps to a resounding and satisfying close, the realization creepily sinks in that this very film, is Varda’s timeless cinematic eulogy. Her legacy will live on forever. As the credits role at the very start, and the ending concludes in promiscuous darkness, we see Varda’s true colors come to light. She’s not just an artist. She’s a fucking saint.
Varda by Agnès screened at this year’s Festival Du Nouveau Cinema and Chicago International Film Festival. The film is now playing in select cinemas.