NYFF 57: “Varda by Agnes” Takes You to Film School

Varda by Agnes Varda by Agnes (New York Film Festival)

The late filmmaker’s final project was hosting a warm & fascinating look at her extraordinary seven decade career.

A good documentary will leave you wanting to know more about the subject. That seems contradictory, but hear me out: no matter how interesting a subject may be, if it’s presented in a boring, sketchily drafted manner, you aren’t likely to be motivated enough to seek out additional information. But a well-crafted, engaging documentary, whether it’s ninety minutes or three hours long, will make you want to absorb yourself in everything there is to know about the subject, to the point where you could win bar trivia contests about it. Varda by Agnes doesn’t just make you wish that it was longer, but that it was possible to see every single image Agnes Varda ever put to film.

Directed and hosted by Varda herself, it’s a sort of masterclass in her films and art, and how she applied the three words that were most important to her: inspiration, creation, and sharing. Wearing her hair in a silver and purple bowl cut, Varda is witty, lively, and clearly delighted to talk about her work, while lacking the pretentiousness that you’d assume would be found in one of the most notable figures in French New Wave cinema. Considering both her energy, and her remarkable memory for even her earliest work, it’s hard to believe that Varda was 90 when she filmed this, let alone that she died only a month after presenting it at the Berlin Film Festival. But what a wonderful parting gift she left behind.

Varda focuses not just on her well-known work, such as 1962’s Cleo From 5 to 7 and 2017’s Academy Award nominated Faces Places, but also some obscurities, like 1988’s Jane B by Agnes V, a collaboration with close friend Jane Birkin to help Birkin cope with the anxiety of turning forty. Without a bit of regret or bitterness, she even spends time discussing an unmitigated flop, 1994’s A Hundred and One Nights, in which she wryly notes that Robert DeNiro, cast in a small role, learned to speak French phonetically.

Like all artists worth their salt, Varda found something worth capturing in virtually all parts of life, in every part of the world.

In addition to her remarkable talent as a filmmaker, Varda was a documentarian and a visual artist as well. Her subjects were vast and often years ahead of their time, including Vietnam, the Black Panther movement, Chicano mural painters in 1970s Los Angeles, and food waste, but occasionally focused on more mundane, personal matters, like a neighborhood market, or a quirky distant relative who lived on a boat in California. Like all artists worth their salt, Varda found something worth capturing in virtually all parts of life, in every part of the world. Inspiration was found in something as meaningless as misshapen produce, which was the basis for an entire art installation at which Varda appeared dressed in a potato costume, exhibiting a whimsical sense of humor not always found in her films.

If you’re looking to learn about who Varda is as a person, you may be somewhat disappointed with Varda by Agnes. Her childhood isn’t mentioned at all, and Varda only touches very briefly on her personal life, but speaks with palpable affection in her voice about her late husband and frequent collaborator, Jacques Demy, writer/director of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (talk about your power couples). Though ultimately it was cancer that took Varda’s life, she mentions, again without regret or bitterness, struggling with a deteriorative eye disease (“no fun, considering my career”). It’s both fitting and deeply poignant that the film closes on Varda sitting on a beach, noting with no melancholy or regret, just pragmatism, that eventually we’ll all be carried away with the wind and sand, as her image eventually grows too blurred to see.

The Criterion Channel carries a considerable selection of Agnes Varda’s films, both her features and short subjects. Varda by Agnes is an overview of her extraordinary artistic output — how lucky we are to be able to fill in the parts that we’re missing, and what a shame it would be to let that opportunity pass us by.

Varda by Agnes Trailer:

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