The lone female filmmaker of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda passed away earlier this year at the age of ninety, still vital, still working after having just received an honorary Oscar. She left us with one more gift, a documentary in which she reflects on her six decade career, titled, like a book she published twenty-five years earlier, “Varda by Agnès.”
Agnès Varda’s art focused on the people she saw around her every day, engrossing portraits complemented by her playful perspective on life. The filmmaker has edited the series originally made for French television by interspersing two live speaking events with archival footage, film clips and stills. It is structured in two halves, the first focusing on her feature films, the second kicking off with her still photography then moving into her art installations before culminating with her thoughts on “Faces Places,” the documentary which combined all three art forms.
‘Inspiration, creation and sharing’ are the three words Varda holds dear, the words which define her approach to art and which she begins spinning anecdotes from. As she shows us the footage, Agnès explains how she was taken with a real life street performer, a man who swallowed live frogs, who she included in “Cleo from 5 to 7.” We see recreations of paintings show up in her work.
In both speaking and editing, Varda is a master of the artful transition. In her 1976 documentary ‘Daguerréotypes,’ she describes the people on the street where she lived as ‘the silent majority’ before describing her 1968 short documentary subjects as ‘the outraged minority’ (“Black Panthers”). The feminism she found in the Black Panther movement gives her a springboard into her female body politic doc (“Women’s Reply”) which leads into a discussion of the unapologetic loner of “Vagabond.”
While she includes a lot of footage of her sharing with an audience from a stage, she mixes things up with quirky asides. While discussing tracking shots, we suddenly see her being moved down a track on a platform bearing a paper camera. Her “Vagabond” star Sandrine Bonnaire joins her there. She threads the constants of her life – husband Jacques Demy, beaches, recycling – throughout her film just as her films are connected by them.
Agnès Varda was an optimist who finds the silver lining even in her degrading eyesight and “Varda by Agnès” is stuffed with wisdom, joy and insights into creating art. Spending two hours with Agnès Varda is a real treat.
Robin did not see this film.
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