Published Nov 19, 2019A crowd filters into a room, captured in time lapse, while a director's chair with the name "Agnès" on the back sits empty onstage. Agnès Varda comes out to a table with her notes piled in front of her, and eases into a talk on her methods and philosophies. She notes the grandiose setting, an opera theatre repurposed into a venue for a short elderly woman's guided tour through her life's varied works. All in all, Varda by Agnès, potentially the final new work from the filmmaker and artist, starts out small.
The opportunity to capture the thoughts of the grandmother of French new wave is important on its own. She's had a seismic influence on cinema, an impact that grows each year as more cineastes become fans and recognize her accomplishments. A work like this, taking stock of the span of her output in her own words before she passed away this past March, would have value, no matter its interests as a distinct film.
But how much can this stand on its own? And how does it feel as a final statement and cap to a big life?
The answer's influenced by the fitting coda Varda already released, Faces Places. She made that film with visual artist JR. The two travelled the countryside and through small towns, making large-scale installations recognizing common folks in spots normally reserved for traditionally great or grand art. The two artists' interests in the stories of ordinary people converged and were playfully played out on screen, Varda occasionally digressing into thoughts on her age and mortality.
As the last word from Varda, Faces Places would've been the send-off she deserved. Varda by Agnès, in comparison, can't live up to the lightness and eccentricities of that work. That said, it's still a lot more than an academic talk. From that opera theatre, Varda throws open the curtain and broadens the film up to a winding walk through her life that can take many forms. We see her pioneering fiction films like Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond, her keenly-observed and engaged documentary work in movies like The Gleaners and I, and the photography and installation work that help her interest so much in her later years.
Varda, the film, picks put the style of Varda, the filmmaker. In discussing her fiction films, she describes the process of finding structures and strategies that feel honest and convey true moments. The same goes here: she moves away from the format of An Evening With talk quickly, not only by cutting among different occasions of her speaking but by seeding her previous work so deeply into the fabric of this movie that, on occasion, moments of her interjected into her old movies are indistinguishable from what's new to this film.
Along the way, the film takes plenty of backroads, chasing and reliving moments of inspiration wherever they can be found. Even in this, a taking of account for her filmography and other projects, she's still paying tribute to those who piqued her curiosity, those who showed her something compelling. Her gift is in showing that connection between distinct points of humanity as directly as possible and with little pretence. For some, seeing the interviewer and subject in a documentary setting sharing a blanket over their legs in the course of a talking-head piece would be odd. For Varda, it's the most natural thing in the world.
The result is playful, following her interests as they appear in a way that's in keeping with a lot of Varda's output. In a clear, concise fashion, she builds a work that not only conveys what was so great about her work but shows it in practice. If only all greatest hits packages were this inventive.
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