Varda By Agnès Review
Film Review review by: Andrew Winter
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.
Varda By Agnès Review
A certain image exists of the auteur director, one that isn't necessarily all too flattering. Pretentious, disdainful of the work of others, disconnected from the audiences that consume their work by a vast gulf and, typically male. While I love the man's work, this image is best exemplified by Jean-Luc Godard, whose arrogance has turned many off over the years, including Agnès Varda, the subject this review, who was stood up by him in her documentary Faces Places. This heartbreaking interaction fascinates me, as despite emerging at the same time and place within the same artistic movement - the much-lauded French New Wave - it truly demonstrates how the two could not be further apart in terms of outlook and image. Varda is humble, compassionate, and empathetic, all while possessing the same aura of genius that her contemporaries are known for. Even her signature look emphasises this, a wide grin and a two-toned pageboy cut that lend her softness with a quiet sense of rebellion.
Varda By Agnès, her final film, is a beautiful tour of her groundbreaking artworks by the woman herself, framed by a talk she gave to an adoring audience that feels as much like a conversation between friends as a lecture by one of the greatest directors of all time. Using a loosely chronological structure, Varda glides through her creations, explaining the various technical and thematic innovations in each as well as her own personal connections with the work. In this sense, the title is particularly apt; while not strictly a biography of Agnès' life, it certainly charts the journey of Varda the artist. This isn't to say that her personal life doesn't inevitably seep in though, especially in the affecting moments where she speaks of her late husband Jacques Demy, her jovial, assured voice suddenly dampened by the lump in her throat.
As with every one of her other films, the playfulness and excitement in her filmmaking shine through. The talk she delivers may frame much of the film, but this is a million miles away from the traditional talking head and archive footage structure. While these both occasionally feature, the bulk of the film is made up of new footage in which she returns to various locations, reminiscing and recreating key moments in her career to place them in a broader retrospective context. Of course, there are many playful, ebullient moments sprinkled throughout, including an image of Varda sat on the beach with fake seagulls that represents the feel of the film so well it was chosen for the Blu-ray background.
Beyond everything else though, this documentary isn't an ode to one woman, but a full-on celebration of the wonderful ordinary people that Varda sought to uplift in her films. That's why, along with the close release dates, I have paired this film in my mind with Faces Places, another Varda documentary about the people in her life. Even when discussing her more inward-looking films - Cleo From 5 To 7, for example, that primarily focusses on a single woman's struggles - she is determined to relate them back to her love of the 'real', whether that comes in the form of actual passers-by as extras, or filming in locations close to her heart and including people in the local shops she frequents. In some ways, this film is a dissection of the auteur theory as a concept, with Varda joyfully admitting that all of her works have been inspired not by internal motivation, but by the struggles and triumphs of those who have come in and out of her life. This even extends to political movements like women's liberation and the Black Panthers, her involvement with these groups further highlighting her socially-minded mentality as an artist.
Along with these two hours of humanist joy, the BFI's Blu-ray of Varda By Agnès includes several additional documentaries: the feature-length talk at BFI Southbank Agnès Varda in Conversation, a short that explores the 90-year-old Varda's love of Instagram, and an audiovisual essay by film scholar Amy Simmons discussing the political and emotional outlook of several of Varda's films. Presumably, if you're looking to get this film on Blu-ray you're enough of a Varda enthusiast to want to see more of the icon and her work, so this extra material is a fantastic inclusion that won't go ignored in the special features section.
I must admit, I spent much of the runtime of Varda By Agnès crying on and off at the pulsing realisation that this wonderful lady was gone forever. She lived a long, joyful life, and her death was not entirely unexpected, but nonetheless, I found myself thinking of the world as a much darker place without her in it. But then I realised that to let this sadness take too firm a grip on me would be to ignore Varda's messages of community and shared happiness - her films and her many, many friends live on, and as long as we can collectively maintain an inventive, endlessly optimistic outlook in our art, she will never truly have left us.
Rest in Peace, Agnès.