The first lady of French cinema offers a final, typically fascinating self-portrait.
There’s a breakdown of common purpose in how Agnès Varda is perceived in the current film landscape. On one hand, since the recent success of her relatively twee, jaunty road trip documentary Faces Places, and its promotion involving cardboard cutouts of Varda popping up in cinemas across the world, there’s a temptation to turn her into a meme, to like and share snaps of Tha Absolute Queen without much familiarity with her career.
On the other, there are devoted students of this ethnographer and self-portraitist, inventor and recycler, philosopher-poet and prankster, this artist who has directed over 50 films including shorts and features going back to the inception of the French New Wave in the 1950s. Not to mention a significant body of work in TV series, art installation, photography and books. For the curious, observing the bifurcated camps of fandom, from the superficial to the intimidating, it might be difficult to know the best entry point into the filmography.
Varda by Agnès, a summation of her work, is a piece that might play equally well to neophytes, devotees and cinephiles who fall somewhere in the middle. It’s not the first time Varda has addressed her audience directly and reflected on her life and career – see also such works as the 1994 book that shares this film’s title, as well as 2008’s autobiographical The Beaches of Agnès and the 2011 mini-series Agnès Varda: From Here to There. But this new one takes the form of a masterclass and a taster palette, gesturing broadly at the work and its intentions, giving an overview that can be taken as either introduction or recap.
“I just turned 90 and I don’t care; when I turned 80, I panicked, I thought I had to finish something,” says Varda referring to the time between Varda by Agnès and The Beaches of Agnès. While the previous film saw Varda take to the road and stage pop-up experimentation in the landscapes of her memories and projects, the new work is a calmer, more official lecture. The film is largely collected from Q&A sessions Varda has done in the past couple of years – including one at London’s BFI Southbank.
“I can’t follow the chronology,” she says, gigglingly, after almost calling it ‘the criminology’, and correcting herself. Instead she jumps back and forth, describing a career full of journeying into the lives of bystanders across the world. Having captured a French fishing village for her first feature, La Pointe Courte, after having only seen about 10 films in her life, playing with real time versus emotional time in her most famous feature, Cleo from 5 to 7, and filming the denizens of her own Paris street in Daguerréotypes, she also had an American period, capturing LA hippies in Lions Love, African-American activists in Black Panthers and the graffiti scene in Mural Murals.
She portrayed a woman who shunned society by living on the road in Vagabond, and women who changed it by advancing abortion rights in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. She paid tribute to her actor friend Jane Birkin in works like Jane B for Agnès V, to the childhood of her director husband Jacques Demy in Jacquot de Nantes and to the centenary of cinema itself in One Hundred and One Nights. In 2000, she picked up a digital camera and made a joyful study of those who live on discarded food in The Gleaners & I. Indeed, her own propensity for ‘gleaning’ extends as far as taking her old film reels and making little greenhouses, or ‘cinema shacks’, from the material.
What makes Varda by Agnès less swirling than her previous autocritiques, and more of a journey than a simple straight video essay, is that she’s basically just talking over film clips – yet she does let this fireside chat ramble and move freely between reflective modes. Sometimes she doesn’t name the film, but instead focuses on journeying to a certain location, or her fascination with a certain person.
She describes her theory of “cinécriture”, which is to say she believes a film is “written” through composition and movement, density and sparseness, sound mixing and other techniques that are uniquely cinematic. She breaks down characters (“Mona’s anger is what keeps her alive, but saying no is what kills her”), notes practicalities (“seasons don’t wait on cinema’s unpredictable schedules”) and makes jokes (“the camera took no space; neither did I, back then.”)
Ultimately, Varda by Agnès is a final testimony of an artist’s approach to the world. “I’d like to tell you what led to me make these films,” she says, outlining three key principles: “Inspiration, creation, sharing.” If that sounds like a bromide, the power of Varda’s images and breadth of her geographical and emotional journeys are the evidence that it isn’t. As Varda’s physical strength diminishes, and she gives us an ending that very much feels like a goodbye, she goes out by handing us an index to her case studies in how to spread creativity into the world.
Published 18 Feb 2019
The loquacious goddess of French cinema reflects on her extraordinary career ahead of the release of her new film, Faces Places.
By Adam Scovell
A curiosity in the everyday powers Agnès Varda’s masterful second feature.