Before watching, I was somewhat vague about the subject of Agnès Varda’s final film. Was this a simple greatest hits package, as would be fitting for a final film which its genius director described as a farewell to the cinema? Or a more personal docu-journey, as with Varda’s more recent material?
The answer is neither. The legendary director’s restless mind – always asking questions, or seeking new answers to old ones – renders Varda by Agnès a much more strange and enchanting journey. In helming this exploration into her own oeuvre, the most intriguing – and underappreciated – of the stars of the French new wave draws a veil over her career and suggests a still-curious mind, despite great pride in the breadth of her achievements, just months before her death at the age of 90.
The master shot, if you like, is a series of lectures – some full houses, some sparsely attended – in which Varda lays out her craft to a captivated audience. Personal reminiscences give way to clips from her most well-known films. To be sure, there’s some new material here, but Varda’s confident to let her filmography speak for itself. Le Bonheur, Lions Love, Murals Murals – and then her late-career imperial phase, the iconic documentary The Gleaners and I, followed by more playful pseudo-docs like The Beaches of Agnes. Cumulatively, it’s a masterclass in film form and philosophy: students hoping to understand Varda’s theory of cinecriture, or cine-writing, could do worse than to begin here.
In keeping with Varda’s explanation of subjective and objective time, the director presents a semi-linear journey in which she herself appears frequently; as an old woman, then young, then older still, always beneath her iconic bowl hairstyle. It’s all accompanied by Varda’s mischievous commentary (one cheeky intentional malapropism casts her filmography in a new light). It’s also joyfully unvarnished: the star of Varda’s Vagabond, Sandrine Bonnaire, recalls her director as a somewhat tyrannical figure, obsessed with realism to a painful extent. This is no puff piece.
At the halfway mark, Varda by Agnès pivots to discussing Varda’s exhibitions and photography, during a time in her life in which film sat on the back burner. It’s fascinating: a side of her which is less frequently seen, and perhaps less well known outside of her native country.
For all of the film’s grand intentions, it often plays like a more straight-laced retrospective: like something that might be commissioned by BBC Four. Like the wonderful ‘cinema house’ of one of her exhibitions, a glass hut wallpapered with film strips of Le Bonheur, there’s more than a touch of artistic recycling here. Excerpts from Varda’s greatest hits (and some of her misses) often play out, in full, without new context. But as an unconventional parting gift, a non-linear trip back in cinematic time with the impish Varda as a guide, it’s a delight.