Inspiration, creation, sharing. As the late Agnès Varda put it herself, these are the three key tenets of her filmmaking process. Varda’s final film, an encapsulation of her decades-spanning career through the lens of her masterclass seminars, brilliantly distills her ethos into a documentary. Despite being made with clear knowledge of her own mortality, Varda by Agnès never feels like a somber mausoleum for her talents. It’s a living, breathing document that keeps her spirit and creativity accessible as well as present.
In her final years, Varda never rested on her laurels as a pioneering filmmaker in the French New Wave. She kept up an impressive schedule of appearances touring the world to give talks about her craft and career at film festivals, even as her eyesight faded and her health declined. Varda by Agnès wisely uses these lectures as a narrative backbone for the documentary, providing a nice anchor from which Varda can explore fanciful tangents or discursive asides. The film serves as a wonderful democratization of the masterclasses, making their wisdom and insight available for those who were unable to attend in person.
The film, too, functions as an extension of Varda’s generosity of spirit well beyond her life itself. She pulls back the curtain on a number of her iconic films like Cléo from 5 to 7, Le Bonheur and Vagabond in a way that can appeal to seasoned cinephiles and neophyte viewers alike. Varda’s masterclasses highlight the connection between film theory and practice in thrilling ways. It is one thing to have someone tell you about the difference between objective and subjective time – and another thing entirely to have a master filmmaker illustrate how she combined them in her most widely renowned work.
Varda by Agnès acts as more than just an intro level film seminar, and it’s certainly more exciting than a career retrospective documentary that might make a handsome supplemental feature on a Criterion Collection disc. And given that Janus Films, a close corporate ally of the Collection, will distribute the film stateside, it’s tempting to consider it as little more than a cherry on top of her formidable oeuvre. But Varda’s final feature, like the director herself, never stopped pushing herself nor settled for the ordinary. She refuses to settle into a familiar pattern of clips, voiceover and masterclass footage to discuss her past films. Varda found creative ways to keep them feeling fresh, such as returning to filming locations from her film Vagabond to re-interview star Sandrine Bonnaire about the film’s legacy.
The documentary is not a memorialization of Varda’s “cinecriture,” or “cine-writing” style. The film is itself the act it depicts. Even through Varda by Agnès, Varda continues to probe the boundaries of her aesthetic. It’s the ultimate testament to her curiosity, both about the form of cinema and the people she used it to document, that she still managed to find new applications for her technique even when putting it under a microscope. The film is just as much a restless, vibrant and inventive multimedia collage as her other documentary works.
“Others interest me more,” Varda tells the audience at one point, “I prefer filming them.” Especially in the back half of the film, she shows us the camera to expand horizons beyond the frame, not merely to navel-gaze. While this portion of Varda by Agnès meanders a bit more, it’s particularly instructive as to how one can live guided both by a long, accomplished career and an awareness of how fleeting our time on this earth is. She reached people beyond the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, exposing the power of the image to children, rural denizens and various people tangentially affected by her work. How fortunate we are that Varda’s humanistic spirit motivated her into this gesture of compassionate cinema – and how compelled those of us who love cinema should feel to follow in her humanistic example.
/Film rating: 8.5 out of 10
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