I remember thinking that Agnès Varda’s recent collaboration with French photographer JR, Faces Places, was an excellent crash course in the director’s professional history as an artist. The way that project synthesized Varda’s past work in still photography, art instillations, and the blending of documentary & narrative filmmaking felt like a succinct summation of everything she had accomplished in her lifetime as a titan of cinema. That take on Faces Places feels a little premature in retrospect now that I’ve seen Varda’s latest—and, sadly, final—feature: Varda by Agnès. As the title suggests, this final documentary is a much more direct, comprehensive retelling of Varda’s career in the auteur’s own words. It covers the major milestones of everything she accomplished on movie screens, in art galleries, and in outdoor instillation pieces as its central declared topic, whereas Faces Places only referenced that portfolio in relation to how it influenced her work with JR. This film is the Agnès Varda crash course, the career overview that guides each viewer to their personal blindspots in her oeuvre and provides further anecdotal background info for Varda scholars already deeply in the know.
True to her playful, intellectually considerate approach to filmmaking, Varda addresses this indulgence in self-academia head-on by allowing the subject to shape the film’s form. Varda by Agnès is presented as an interlocking series of lectures, where the director herself orates from a proper stage to several live audiences. The entirety of the picture is narrated by Varda, with illustrative film clips & still-photograph slideshows fleshing out each touchstone of her sermon. Instead of starting with her very first film (La Pointe Courte) and chronologically trudging along to her most recent project (Faces Places), Varda instead allows the story of her career to gradually take shape as she naturally follows the flow of topics that have informed her work over the years, as if having a casual (and one-sided) conversation with her audience. She’s teaching us everything she knows about filmmaking (or “cinewriting,” as she calls it) by looking back to the major touchstones of her career, but she somehow never takes on an authoritative or professorial tone. Instead, it feels as if she’s leveling with us as equals; it’s a humble & empathetic sharing of everything she’s learned over a half-century of filmmaking, so that we can utilize that knowledge for more & better art once she’s gone.
While its initial premise suggests that it’s merely a career overview of Varda’s work in particular, Varda by Agnès functions just as well as general advice from the auteur on the processes & philosophies of filmmaking at large. She breaks down the art of “cinewriting” into three basic processes: inspiration, creation, and sharing. The contextual info she provides for her own films is consistently informed by those three tenets, and she uses that structure to deliver meaningful advice to the young artists who will outlive her. Larger topics like radical politics, the subjectivity of time, and the ability of a creator’s empathy to transform mundane subjects into transcendent Art arise naturally as the movie pauses on various projects from Varda’s past. Varda by Agnès may not be as kinetic or as aggressively stylistic as her career’s greatest triumphs (a contrast that’s unignorable, given those films’ presence on the screen), but it’s still incredibly playful & thoughtful in its own construction, especially considering the limitations of its structure as an academic lecture. Varda’s body was failing her as this project took shape, and she died before it premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival last year. It’s a wonder the film exists at all, much less that it’s as intellectually sharp & creatively fluid as it is, even if its physical staging is limited.
The world did not deserve Agnès Varda. Yet, she gave us everything she could muster anyway. Even in her dying year, she gifted us a concrete way to say goodbye & to memorialize everything she accomplished while alive. Most aging auteurs of her stature don’t get that chance, and even fewer would go about their very public retirement in such a humble, uncurmudgeonly way.