If you’re looking for a masterclass in film-making, there’s no better place to start than Varda by Agnes.
Happily, we celebrated a “Summer of Agnes” on this site just last year, when it seemed that, at last, the world was acknowledging the great achievements of Varda, for so long dubbed “the godmother of the New Wave”.
She died just a few months ago, on March 29, but not before this typically twinkling work could premiere at Berlin. It is, it turns out, a fond farewell and joyous celebration of a life in film – in fact, a guidebook as to how to live a life in film, never hogging the light, always holding to Agnes’ three-word dictum: “Inspiration, creation, sharing”.
Although it’s essentially a sedentary lecture about her career, Agnes makes it playful and fun, with clips and reminisences that are by turns humorous, reflective and scintillating. You lap up her words and her images, lose yourself in the story of a woman who never followed anything but her own path.
It’s a unique, humane body of work, through which one can trace some the seismic societal events of the last 100 years, from the Second World War, to cancer, to feminism, Vietnam, homelessness, youth movements, post-industrialisation, abortion, environmentalism and digital technology.
I’m a huge Varda fan and there were still plenty of stories and clips in here that I’d never seen before – an interview with Sandrine Bonnaire on a dolly, about their work together on Vagabond (1985); an explanation of her work with Jane Birkin, who was turning 40; a bizarre-looking thing called Kung Fu Master, starring her own son obsessed with a the titular video game; the disaster of her star-studded 1994’s One Hundred and One Nights, with Robert de Niro talking French by phonetics and falling in a lake; a moving re-visit to her first film La Pointe Courte (1954) featuring fishermen and looking like its from another world.
Throughout, Agnes gives her own thoughts and memories and it is consistently charming, impish, clever stuff. Inspirational, even – she can find any excuse, any situation and turn it into film.
Her career takes off again at the turn of the century, when she discovers digital cameras and discarded, mis-shapen potatoes. The Gleaners and I is a marvellous work and it leads to a new career as a “visual artist”, creating installations, sculptures, inter-active art that seem to be where her life as photographer, nurturer, partner, muse, film maker was leading her all along. The Beaches of Agnes (2008) and Faces Places (2018) must rank among my favourite documentaries of this century.
If I’m honest, this isn’t her finest work, but it is about her finest work, all her work, which is to say her life and her friends. Agnes had a way about her, a presence I was lucky enough to share several times, in interviews, lunches, cocktail parties and, once, a treasurable walk through Paris. I can hardly separate the woman from her work. so this gentle, elegiac, career highlights reel is as lovely as anything of its kind could possibly be. Adieu Agnes.