Ever so rarely, cinephiles are gifted with an acute autobiographical glimpse into the mind of an all-time great through a work that stands neck and neck with the films we laud the master for. Consider David Lynch: The Art Life in tandem with his unconventional semi-autobiography Room to Dream, the haunting tape recordings of Marlon Brando in Listen to Me Marlon, Orson Welles’ fragmentary theoretical analysis of self in F for Fake, or Terrence Davies’ Of Time and the City, an autobiographical work shaded in the dreariness of his hometown, Liverpool. Compassionate mother of the French New Wave, stalwart humanist and feminist, and all-around charmer, Agnès Varda is responsible for the most recent (and most revealing) addition to the subgenre.
Varda by Agnès is exactly what it sounds like—Agnès covering Varda, a memoir of sorts on the life and times of one of cinema’s most treasured auteurs. The film was originally meant to be a two-part docuseries for French television. It follows a simple structure: Varda sits in a small auditorium where she talks a crowd of college students through her work chronologically, the film in question, or behind-the-scenes footage from it playing throughout, her voice always adding insight. Occasionally, she stops to let a scene play out that will prove her point, exemplify her methods, or play to comedic effect.
She has a sixth sense for delighting the audience, both onscreen and off. She waxes poetic about the philosophy behind her films as much as she does the philosophy behind her own life. She relays the same depth with themes, camera techniques, moods/tones, styles, screenwriting, and direction. She’s so forthright, it feels like we’ve stumbled upon a classified document. She unweaves the riddles she’s spun for us over the years despite having no obligation to.
She could have left us in the dark, fiddling with our own interpretive devices, for the rest of our lives, but she chose to share, to open herself up, as she always has. Her transparency has consistently been a defining characteristic of her work, one of a titan handful that contribute to her career effulgence. Listening to her makes one feel incredibly grateful and self-consciously intrusive at the same time, though Varda would certainly rebuke the latter feeling with a warm, friendly smile.
As she informs us, sharing is the third and most enigmatic step in her artistic process (inspiration, creation, sharing). Anyone familiar with the reclusiveness of your average auteur director will marvel in Varda’s lucidity. But the point isn’t that the greats owe us the kind of career exposition she offers—it’s that, even among the choicest few, Varda is a singular artist, an unparalleled blend of magnanimity, mathematical brilliance, and creative wonder.
“I love setting up enigmas only I know the secret to,” she giggles unpretentiously before explaining how she crafted the thirteen tracking shots in Vagabond and why. Each tracking shot is one full minute long and all thirteen are exactly ten minutes apart. She shot them from right to left because she wanted to disorient and challenge the minds of the audience, who would be used to reading things left to right. She then dives into the thematic meaning behind the camerawork before sharing a conversation with Sandrine Bonnaire—the star of the film—about how rude she had to be to her on set to get her into character.
It’s healthy to doubt the brilliance we heap onto the best and brightest, to consider that Varda really didn’t intend the layers of complexity we’ve been reading onto her work for half a century. Maybe what we find in it is accidental by nature or expressed out of curiosity and without purpose. It doesn’t take away from the film to learn that something we love about it wasn’t intended by the filmmaker, but it squashes all doubts and confirms someone like Varda’s elite status to learn that what we’ve been discussing all of these years was not only intended, but that it’s the tip of the iceberg.
She’s written and directed too many films to go into detail on all of them, but she hits a sizable swath of her filmography, including classics like Cléo from 5 to 7, Jacquot de Nantes, and Le Bonheur, lesser-knowns like Black Panthers, Lions Love (…and Lies), and Mur Murs, and her late documentary triumphs like The Gleaners & I, The Beaches of Agnès, and Faces Places. The footage from her films played back-to-back in concert with her commentary showcases the spectacular diversity of her filmography, but it also illuminates the themes and ideas most central to Varda—the concepts she wrestled with through cinema from 1955 to 2019, like time.
She had an obsession with time, our perception of it, and the way that perception could be depicted and manipulated with a camera. She clues us in on the techniques she used to toy with time in Cléo from 5 to 7. Every shot of a clock presents us with objective, measurable time, while every clock-less sequence with Cléo delivers a much more subjective experience of time. The amount of time that passes as Cléo experiences it never aligns with how much time has passed in the next shot of the clock, because we’re experiencing the subjectivity of time through her.
Fast forward to the end of Varda by Agnèsand the auteur is nearly in tears theorizing about the ephemerality of being through the Faces Places beach mural of her friend that washed away the day after she and J.R. pasted it on the fallen bunker. In her 64-year career, she never fell out of love with the absurdity and incongruity of time—just like she never fell out of love with the marriage of reality and representation, the social and institutional convolutions of womanhood, the inclusive concept of cinecriture, the personal and communal value of strange, inventive art, and the humanist ideology that led her to working primarily with local non-actors and choosing others over herself (per reputation).
The sincerity in her narrating voice is shrouded in sagacity, fascination, contentment, and a calming dose of melancholy. We hang on her every word as if it’s coming from the Dalai Lama himself, but Varda never demands this kind of respect. She radiates humility, always occupying a down to Earth tone, still open to new ways of thinking at 90 years old. She’s the kind of person who, in their wisdom, is as willing to learn from the simplicity of a child as she is the intricacies of a veteran connoisseur.
From her films, she draws out precious memories of her days as a binge ping pong player, her friendship with Andy Warhol, the remarkable impression Robert De Niro left on her after one day on set, and her hilarious “I Hurt Everywhere” street protest. She romanticizes over Jacques Demy, making it clear that she’s still deeply in love with her late husband. She dives headfirst into the visual art she created later in life, such as the potato exhibit attached to Gleaners (in which she wore an adorable potato costume) and the bucolic tomb of her dead cat (now represented at the Cartier Foundation in Paris).
Varda by Agnès is a holistic self-portrait of one of the medium’s most wonderful and influential icons—one who cared more about the people at the center of her films than her own fame or fortune. We aren’t likely to get another document like this from a director as prominent as Varda, and if we do, it’s more prone to the stunning ambiguity of David Bowie’s departing album, Blackstar, than it is to Varda’s uniquely candid reflection. It’s a near-celestial work.
As if Varda’s career elucidation isn’t tear-inducing enough out of context, watching it in 2019 makes it as devastating as it is beautiful, the knowledge of her death maintaining a well of tears behind your eyes that replenishes as soon as they escape down your cheeks. It’s almost as if Varda made the film to comfort us from the grave, to give us a depth of humor, joy, reflection, and sadness that accentuates our humanity and reminds us why her work is invaluable. The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 13 this year and on French television on March 18. Eleven days later, Agnès Varda died, her profound and final work transforming post-mortem into something cinematically sacred—a graceful farewell before vanishing forever, as she does in the last shot, in the frosty comfort of one of her many beaches.