Varda by Agnès

(Varda par Agnès, Agnès Varda, France, 2019)


During the 1990s, in her 60s, Agnès Varda memorialised her late husband Jacques Demy across a series of three films. In 2008, turning 80 and facing an intimation of her own mortality, she memorialised herself in the splendid The Beaches of Agnès, a highlight in her filmography. Ten years later, not long after turning 90 (she died in March 2019), she provided another kind of self-retrospective in Varda by Agnès. She had already used this title for a splendid autoportrait “scrapbook” published by Cahiers du cinéma in 1994.


In her press kit statement for the film, she sets the breezy tone: “I give my own keys, my thoughts, nothing pretentious, just keys”. Didier Rouget is credited as “co-director of the first part”, and Julia Fabry is “artistic director”. Clearly, a bunch of close associates – including Varda’s daughter, Rosalie – gathered around her to bring this final work to completion.


It begins in a theatre, as a Masterclass before a rapt audience; but soon, with her typical dexterity of montage (or cinécriture as she called it), it becomes a weave of many talks, extracts, snippets from self-produced DVD extras, and invited testimonies from select collaborators (actor Sandrine Bonnaire, curator-commissioner Hans-Ulrich Obrist, cinematographer Nurith Aviv and composer Joanna Bruzdowicz, among others).


This is Varda as she chose to present herself to us, in the image she carefully sculpted – energetic, affable, playful, childlike, boundlessly creative – with only a few tell-tale hints of her underlying toughness and tenacity as both artist and businesswoman. One can laugh reading some of the claims in over-mythologising obituaries that she “struggled to make a living from filmmaking” in contrast with the guy-brigade of the Nouvelle Vague – having personally seen her in action in her home/studio/factory/salesroom (spread over three nearby addresses in the Rue Daguerre that she made famous) one day in the early ‘90s, I (like many) can testify to her unfailingly resilient entrepreneurship.


Throwing strict biographical chronology aside, Varda by Agnès takes us on a tour through her films (major and minor, short and long), lets us glimpse her photographs, and then transits to the 21st century world of digital cameras and museum installations. What to do with her old film prints? Recycle them as cabin-sculptures, why not! This avant-garde gesture is ecology in action.

MORE Varda: Du côté de la côte, Cléo from 5 to 7

© Adrian Martin July 2019 / January 2021

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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