Last August, I saw Agnès Varda give a lecture at the BFI Southbank in London about her long and storied career. Switching between French and slightly hesitant English, the 90-year-old filmmaker, documentarian, photographer and visual artist offered a fascinating – if occasionally chaotic – sprint through her work’s major themes and ideas, her hits and misses, her loves and losses. It was all rapturously received and Agnès was charm personified.
Eight months later, in March of this year, she passed away, leaving behind an incredible cinematic legacy, stretching from 1955’s La Pointe Courte, through her years as a leading light in the French Nouvelle Vague, right up to 2017’s Oscar-nominated Faces Places. Varda By Agnès was conceived as a final statement – “This is it, this is my talk,” as she told The Hollywood Reporter back in January – a permanent (longer, slicker) version of the lecture she'd given in London and elsewhere.
Chock-a-block with clips from a dozen or more of Varda’s films, this is a real greatest hits package, but also finds time to explore plenty of deep cuts (shorts, obscure docs, artworks). There are certainly similarities with 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès ", but here the autobiographical element is pushed to the back a little as her work and process take centre stage (an exception is made for her beloved late husband and fellow director, Jacques Demy, who crops up several times).
Split roughly into two parts, 20th and 21st Century, Varda spends much of the first hour talking about her earliest films and documentaries. At heart, she was always a documentarian, and discusses how, even in fictional works, such as Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962) and Le Bonheur (1965), she would use real-life footage to enhance their verisimilitude (the street “entertainer” ingesting live frogs in Cléo... is one such jaw-dropping moment).
The second half focusses far more on Varda’s work as a visual artist and, around the turn of the century, her discovery of digital cameras which enabled her to film her subjects far less intrusively than when she worked with a crew. It revolutionised her filmmaking method and led to two of her best films, The Gleaners & I (2000) and Faces Places (with co-director, JR), both of which are well represented here. The latter nudged her closer to the mainstream than she had been in years, but she was fairly dismissive of the newfound attention, even sending a cardboard cut-out of herself to the Oscar nominees lunch.
Varda produced a huge amount of art in a whole host of disciplines over seven decades and the film covers an impressive amount of it. But this never feels like a whistle-stop tour because what is being explored is one vision, one body of work, one history, and you get easily swept up in the sheer dizzying breadth of it as a result.
There was a playful side to Varda that informed her films and life, and is on prominent display here; whether she’s dressed as a potato to help publicise one of her gallery installations or being amusingly frank about her career’s occasional wrong turns. One of my favourite segments involves One Hundred and One Nights, which she made with an all-star cast in 1995 to celebrate a century of cinema. As well as featuring a lead character named, ahem, Simon Cinéma (Michel Piccoli), the idiosyncratic film boasted a hilarious cameo from Robert De Niro, who had learned his French lines phonetically. It bombed at the box office and remains little seen.
Although Varda was French film industry royalty, she always had a deepfelt empathy for the stories of “real people” (as she called them) and those living marginalised lives. A sequence about the harrowing Vagabond (1985), in which Varda discusses the film’s extensive use of tracking shots and banters affectionately with its star, Sandrine Bonnaire, is a real highlight, as is an exploration of The Widows of Noirmoutier (2006), a touching installation piece where grieving women talk openly and movingly about their deceased husbands. It is rendered more powerful by the director’s own painful loss.
Even though Varda tackles her advancing years in a joyful manner (“I have a good time ageing,” she says at one point), her death can’t help but wrap the film in a blanket of melancholy; its closing shot of the director and kindred-spirit JR disappearing in a sandstorm feels horribly final. But the director couldn’t have a better obituary than the work she leaves behind, including this film, and I predict her influence – especially amongst young documentary makers – will continue to grow.
Later in life, Varda may have looked like a sweet old grandmother, but she was a guerrilla filmmaker before the term was even coined – daring, disciplined, creative, feminist, humanist. Her time is far from up.