Director: Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda died on 29 March this year at the age of 90. I’ve seen too few of her films: the ones offered to me by MUBI in the wake of her death… last year’s charming Faces Places… her own mini-documentary on the making of partner Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls Of Rochefort included on the BFI DVD… In spite of my enthusiasm for film, her name didn’t really come into my consciousness until just a few years ago. Chalk that up to either my own ignorance or how the story of film has often been rewritten with a masculine bias.
Faces Places gave me a feel for this beloved artist, whose recent halo of red hair has become as iconic as the glasses of Iris Apfel. Wise, sweet and exceedingly French; I was ready for whatever came next in my journey through her work.
Turns out what came next was the end.
Varda By Agnès – her final film – acts as a career retrospective. Varda was evidently aware that her time was coming to an end, and decided to curate her own legacy. This, then, is her two-hour parting gift, and its as lovely and idiosyncratic as you might expect.
Initially, Varda appears to have invited us to attend a formal talk of hers, reflecting from the vantage of a stage on the ideas and impulses that fed into her best known work; Cleo From 5 to 7. But her restless, inventive spirit quickly carries the film out of the confines of the auditorium. And so we too feel transported. As she jumps through time, retelling her experiences and intentions in making Vagabond (seen that one), Varda returns her to the pastures where the film was shot, where she is wheeled along on a dolly as she talks to us.
She talks candidly of her passion for activism and political reform and this follows through in her work. One Sings, The Other Doesn’t is a pointedly feminist film, and one of her early documentaries took the Black Panthers movement in Oakland, 1968 as its subject. Varda presents her body of work as both personal and also telling of a wider reaching ideology. In this way it is clear to see how she has at times taken on the mantle of cinema’s liberal spokeswoman.
Varda speaks to a rapt audience, or intimately to just us, direct to camera. She intercuts both experiences, further complimenting the two levels that seem so frequently at play in her work; the intimate and the broadly cultural. Perhaps in doing so Varda shows us how the two techniques coalesce for one purpose; speak to an audience intimately and each viewer is transformed into a participant, and a collective feeling is conjured.
As intimated, this farewell film doesn’t adhere to chronology. Varda will regularly illustrate how one idea spawned another, but the intervals are sometimes years, even decades. She invites us, too, to draw our own lines between works in her filmography; from Murals Murals to Faces Places, for example. This non-linear approach suits the internal logic at work in her creative mind. In turn, the intent of Varda By Agnès perhaps comes clear.
Documentaries that focus on film often fixate on auteurs and the ways in which their careers can be bundled into neat narratives with convenient through lines. Varda By Agnès both rejects the simplicity of this notion and finds Varda pre-empting her inevitable (and inevitably inferior) eulogy. With this film she has left behind the ideal career summation constructed on her own terms. A most generous gift of forethought. She never comes across as vain or narcissistic in doing this. Rather this is a candid and giving project of autobiography, one that acts as a celebration and a perfect primer.
Late in the film, while covering one of her many inspired art installations (this time a tribute to a pet cat), Varda captures a young girl darting back into the custom-built venue (a shack) after her classmates have all left. Varda interviews the girl who says, “I came back because its better to watch the film alone. You feel things better, in the film.” I might not have been so stunned and moved by an off-hand moment all year. A reaction so pure, so succinct and perceptive, delivered with such disarming joy. The girl is really pleased. Perhaps to be able to see the film alone. Perhaps at simply being asked.
Both possibilities feel as though they encompass the essence of Varda’s work; impulsive, personal, dictated by an individual acting on her own terms and for her own pleasure. Varda’s generosity is that she shared so much of herself with us.
Varda finishes by returning to Faces Places and a moment on a windswept beach in which she “disappears”, “leaving you”. She has left us, but her life continues to exist in her art. Varda By Agnès is this artist’s final film, but its also an invitation to discover a life’s work, and reassurance that you may start wherever you please. I have some work to do.