When Varda by Agnès premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last February, it was easy to take Agnès Varda’s assertion that this was to be her final film with a pinch of salt. After all, she’d said the same thing 11 years ago after making her first foray into outright autobiography with The Beaches of Agnès, and again about Faces Places in 2017. Six weeks after the film bowed at Berlin, however, Varda died of cancer, and it became clear that Varda by Agnès really was to be the capstone on an extraordinary 70-plus year-long career in the visual arts.
The fact of her passing naturally transfigures the film; it plays differently now that she’s no longer with us. Seen in February, for example, it might not have been all that obvious that Varda has a markedly more pronounced degree of finality than its director’s documentaries usually do. It’s not so much the idea of death and its presence in the film that gives Varda this sense of conclusiveness – her documentaries have ruminated on her own mortality since she first pointed the camera at her liver spots in The Gleaners and I – but the concept of legacy, always close at hand, that does it.
Primarily made up of extracts from a number of talks Varda gave to film school students and audiences at Paris’ Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, Varda feels motivated by an urgent new desire to pass down precious knowledge, to offer up her own career as a source of inspiration for others. Parts of the film are clearly designed like a master-class: addressing an audience of aspiring filmmakers, Varda generously shares the “keys” to her work, furnishing her young students with advice on the practicalities of shooting on a budget, the importance of patience as a director’s virtue, and her three “guiding words”: “inspiration, creation, sharing.” And all the while, she’s providing examples from her own career as illustration. She discusses her flops – one, a comedy made with De Niro and Delon, the other a sci-fi with Deneuve and Piccoli – with characteristic graciousness and humility, her trademark curiosity piqued more by these disappointments than by her greatest triumphs.
Later on, we accompany her as she zips across decades and skips between mediums; originally airing in France as a two-part TV special, Varda’s first hour covers her career in cinema, with the second being devoted to her beginnings as a theatre photographer (aged 20) and a late-in-life reinvention at 75 as a visual artist. There are some specially filmed clips to enrich and illustrate the talks – one notable segment being a discussion on Vagabond’s 13 tracking shots between Varda and the film’s star Sandrine Bonnaire that takes place, naturally, on a dolly track – but otherwise, most of the trips Varda takes away from the lecture halls are into the past, with Varda keeping up a steady commentary over archive footage of old interviews and extracts from her films.
It’s often pointed out that Varda’s most ostensibly non-autobiographical works all contain a kernel of memoir, but here Varda herself points out the inverse: that past attempts at self-portrait have frequently been hijacked by the people and places she finds more interesting than herself. For the first time, that’s not true: here, Varda’s director-subject seems more determined in her resolution to lay it all down for posterity than she ever has. Where Gleaners, Faces, and Beaches all felt like road movies – Varda welcoming diversions, happiest when her films were being sculpted by spontaneous outside currents – Varda instead feels guided by a firmer hand. Even as we jump between decades and back again, her trademark stream of consciousness editing style seems slightly leashed, her whims kept in check to make space for everything she feels she needs to say.
In that department, she is not lacking; a life and career as richly varied and as audaciously bold as hers will do that for you. For close to two hours, she is our obliging, ever-witty usher, guiding us through seven decades of extraordinary, pioneering multi-medium work. Sections on landmark films like Cléo from 5 to 7, La Pointe Courte, and Le Bonheur – a “very beautiful summer peach […] with a worm inside it” – gift us precious insight into her influences and filmmaking process. Discussion of her first-ever documentary, Daguerrotypes, yields another characteristically poetic truth: “nothing is banal when you have empathy and love.”
Even for viewers unfamiliar with her other “two lives” (as a photographer and visual artist), there is appeal in Varda’s second hour; as she says, empathy makes things interesting – and what have her films done if not endeared us to her, heart and soul? The medium might differ, but each photo, each installation effervesces with the same wit and spark that has earned her movies so much affection. Varda’s trademark imagination and empathy are just as palpable, for example, in a 2006 beach cabana she built using strips of film negatives from her doomed 1966 feature Les Creatures, the light from the sun transforming the hut into a cinema and giving these rejected films a second life (“Recycling brings me joy,” she says). There’s another of Varda’s typically playful winks, too, in a flashback to an exhibition about the island of Noirmoutier – where Varda shared a home with her beloved Jacques Demy – from which visitors would temporarily be barred by mock tide barriers that opened and shut according to the real ebb and flow of the ocean.
Demy, a constant fixture in Varda’s documentaries, appears again here in flashbacks to the touching close-ups of Jacquot de Nantes, the film she shot for and about him while he died of AIDS. That was not the only act of love in her movies; they were full of them, from her perceptive shorts and features devoted to the “silent majorities,” and to her cinematic self-portraits, in which Varda always remained self-effacing without ever being self-disparaging – a hard balance to pull off, in film and in life.
She was always wary of drawing out her goodbyes, too, and so she ended many of her movies abruptly, a practice she continues here. We know Varda by Agnès is her last film, though, and so it feels different, a little like letting go of a hand we’ve been holding for a long time. That is what Varda’s films felt like: not always comforting in their subject matter, but guaranteed to be present; their energy firmly on the side of their audience, unwavering in their radical empathy and accessibility. In her non-fiction work especially, she was entirely bullshit-free, which made her a sage and recalibrating presence: candid, sincere, always ready and willing to embrace life’s pain as much as she was its joy.
No film encapsulates that fact more than Jacquot, which Varda describes here as being about “accompanying time,” rather than an attempt to stop it or deny the inevitability of death. Varda by Agnès feels a little similar; like a bittersweet parting gift, aware of its own finality. Despite that sorrow — or, as Varda might’ve argued, because of it — this feels like nothing less than a pleasure and a blessing; one last precious chance to give profound gratitude. Allowing us to accompany her through these two hours is the perfect final offering this heroine of cinema could give us.