It saddens me a little at how late I joined the party when discovering Agnès Varda’s work. It was only in the last couple of years that the enigmatic director, with her signature half-dyed bob haircut, was dropped in my lap countless times with film magazine editorials and an entire issue of Sight and Sound dedicated to her. It’s only now after seeing her final film, Varda by Agnès, at the BFI no less, I understand why people have been so enamoured by her. Varda died earlier this year, leaving this film as her swan song. But what exactly is Varda by Agnès? In short, it is the summary of her work. A series of lectures, off-cuts, intimate conversations and film clips, spliced together. But traversing deeper, it is the ultimate compendium of her cinematic presence and techniques. The last of her famous lectures, for scholars, cinephiles and even fledgeling fans only just discovering her work to pore over and use as a reference for years to come. And who could be more reliable a reference, than the woman herself to narrate for us.
Even when discussing the serious matter of filmmaking, it is difficult not to be enchanted by Angés Varda. As she takes her seat in an assortment of auditoriums and lecture theatres, she is greeted by faces hunched forward, eager to hear what she has to say, with a wry smile betraying a mischievous quality about her. Students with notepads and people holding up phones to get a picture of her. But in these discussions, Varda tackles various subjects that have influenced her life as well as her filmmaking. She guides us through her use of particular shots: lingering on every step in Cléo From 5 to 7 and unnerving tracking shots in Vagabond. But she does so with the same fervour she applied to making the films in her youth. As with the themes of her films, she directs us as to how she made the lives of ordinary people, so extraordinary.
It was a humbling experience to see Varda touch on my favourite film of hers, Kung Fu Master. Starring Jane Birkin and Varda’s own son, Mathieu Demy, it follows a middle-aged Birkin as her character begins to fall in love with a young boy, who in turn, is far more in love with trying to beat his favourite video game. It was concocted by Birkin during the filming of Jane B. par Angès V., a documentary discussing Jane Birkin’s apprehension of turning forty and reflecting, along with Varda, on one’s life and mortality. In fact, mortality is a theme that runs rife in Varda by Agnès. You can’t help but feel the irony of knowing that it would not be long after the completion of this film that Varda would no longer be with us.
But it’s not just the films that Varda takes us through here. We see her as a photographer in her first life, taking pictures for theatre companies and portraits of famous faces. We also meet Agnés Varda, the visual artist, as museums erect shacks made up of film reel of her pictures to display her works. We also meet the rebel, who followed the Black Panthers in the United States, pretending to film for French television, or at various protests, wandering the street alone, holding her own placard. For her, cinema wasn’t just confined to the movie theatre. It was allowed to branch out in all forms of visual media. No matter how her work was expressed, it was done so with joy
As the film ends, with off-cuts from her documentary film Faces Places, which earned her an Academy Award nomination in 2017, we sit with Varda, as she contemplates her legacy. A powerful pioneer of French New Wave cinema. A cinematic adventurer, unafraid to get her hands dirty for the sake of her art. She sits in a sandstorm on a beach, dreamlike, as if from one of her own films, as she leaves us with some parting words, and disappears with the sand. Varda by Agnès perfectly encapsulates Varda’s autobiography and is a must see for anyone looking to begin their own journey into her work. The denouement of a momentous life, and a preserved cinematic legacy.
Words by Jack Roberts