Agnès Varda’s documentaries have often incorporated her immediate periphery – friends (Jane B. by Agnès V.), family (Uncle Yanco), neighbors (Diary of a Pregnant Woman, Daguerreotypes), or strangers she finds particularly interesting (The Gleaners and I, Faces Places). While she often takes part in the films as a kind of surrogate for the audience — searching, probing, and questioning the day-to-day realities she encounters with an often mischievous disregard for cinematic convention or adherence to actual documentary reality — she is rarely the focus of her own films. Varda had previously turned the camera on herself in 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès, but never before has she she taken such an intimate accounting of her work as she does in Varda by Agnès. Like a personal cinematheque retrospective hosted by Varda herself, Varda by Agnès takes us on a tour through her career as she meets with audiences of eager film students around the world, sharing stories, experiences, and amusing anecdotes about her process and craft.
Just listening to Varda discuss her career would have been enough to make a fascinating viewing experience, but the legendary French filmmaker isn’t content to simply sit in front of a camera and talk about herself. This isn’t merely a “concert film” comprised of clips of Varda’s public appearances. She returns to the scenes of several films, recreating various techniques and breaking the fourth wall with the kind of wistful fondness of a lion in winter reflecting on the days of old. It is fitting, then, that Varda by Agnès ended up being Varda’s final film before her death, occurring earlier this year at the age of 90. The film is a sublimely autumnal reflection of a legendary career, but it never feels mournful or melancholy – instead, it is a celebration of the “dreams and reveries” of a life well-lived, an endlessly engaging ode to a titan of cinema proving she’s still playful, still vibrant, and still filled with childlike wonder at the endless possibilities of the art she held dear. Varda was consistently an artist ahead of her time, a filmmaker who refused to compromise her sense of self or the implicit politics of her identity, who consistently sought to push the boundaries of cinema and better understand the world around her. And in this, her final film, she writes a bittersweet epitaph for herself.
Published as part of November 2019’s Before We Vanish.