Inspiration. Creation. Sharing. These are the three things that legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda cites as most important in her creative career. Varda passed away in March of this year, two months before her 91st birthday. Varda by Agnès is her autobiographical essay, a film rich in warmth and knowledge, and a thorough – though occasionally meandering – journey through her life as a filmmaker, wife, photographer, mother, video artist, woman. In it, she describes in patient, thoughtful scenes, the ways in which those three important words have guided her and formed her identity. We’re shown clips from some of her most beloved films, and a few of her more obscure. Varda’s canvas is vast, but as always, she is able to craft something stunningly, and beautifully, intimate.
The lines between fiction and nonfiction is a common theme which runs throughout Varda’s filmography. Her documentaries are often fitted with narrative prose, and her narratives frequently utilize non-professionals and documentary-style camerawork. Varda by Agnès isn’t even the first time her films have branched into autobiography. In 2008, The Beaches of Agnès documented her return to places and people from her past. At the time, she claimed that would be her last film, and in this latest film, she admits that the making of it was motivated by turning 80 and the panic that gave her. Panic is missing from Varda by Agnès, which is less interested in an end, and more interested in having a conversation with time. For someone who always showcased great compassion for her film’s subjects, she treats time no differently.
We see clips from her most famous films – Cleo From 5 to 7, Vagabond, The Gleaners and I – and she watches and discusses in great details the feelings these images bring to mind. She remembers creative motivations and explains specific filmmaking choices. She confirms that she possesses the kind of thoughtfulness that her films always suggested. Throughout, without immodesty, she displays her graciousness and generosity, her talent and skill. Her commitment to telling females stories, her determination to succeed in a male-dominated society, her unwillingness to sell out her characters. There’s a purity to the ways in which her principles speak themselves into reality throughout her movies. She’s an earnest storyteller, free of the vanity that occasionally plagues other, more famous members of the French New Wave.
Varda is among one of my favorite filmmakers. I’d hope that this film can be enjoyable to those for which that isn’t true, and to the uninitiated, Varda by Agnès will leave you with an astounding list of films to see. It seems to me impossible to legitimately love movies and not have adoration for her, whose entire career has been devoted to finding beauty and transparency across multiple visual arts platforms. Varda by Agnès is a wonderful testament, one that could likely not be outdone if anyone else had taken the challenge. It speaks volumes towards her generosity as an artist as well as a human being that she would gift us with a film even after her passing. It’s something that we should not take for granted, as we say goodbye to one of our greatest film directors.
Directed by Agnès Varda