Agnès Varda: A Life Lived in Cinema



Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda at the Berlin International Film Festival (2019)



“Three words are important to me: inspiration, creation, sharing.”


These words to live by are spoken by Agnès Varda in her final film, Varda by Agnès. Varda passed away in March 2019 and the 57th New York Film Festival was dedicated to her. It also hosted the New York premiere of the film, a documentary that provides a welcome, extensive examination of the filmmaker’s varied body of work over the years, a plethora of cinematic treasures and experiments.


Varda was known in film circles as the godmother of the French New Wave. In a movement dominated by men, like film in general, she provided a steadfast center, calmly pushing the boundaries of the medium in ways distinct from her contemporaries—including her husband, Jacques Demy). Varda by Agnès is an ongoing dedication to and living exploration of film, a word that sounds almost too simple for the thing she embodied and illuminated.



“Inspiration is why you make a film.”


The first Varda film I saw is still probably her most well-known in terms of cinematic history: Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962). The simple yet complex concept is in the title: we follow a woman through the streets of Paris for two hours. In Varda by Agnès, the filmmaker explains that she wanted to combine subjective and objective time—no simple feat. The film fits well with other New Wave classics with its attention to character, arresting black-and-white cinematography, and an experimental heart. But unbeknownst to me this was not her first feature.


Varda by Agnès explores her first foray into filmmaking, Le Pointe Courte (1955), which was more rooted in the style of Neorealism than the New Wave. Even in her first film she created something new, combining the naturalistic techniques of the former with the experimental spirit of the latter. She played with sound, dialogue, and story but gave the setting and non-actors populating it the attention of a documentarian. When one thinks of experimentation, the idea of pushing the envelope by any means necessary might come to mind, exploding the medium into something new, odd, surprising, even disturbing. Rather than this violent kind of experimentation, the word that I feel most exemplifies Varda’s art is playful.



“Creation is how you make a film…[it] is a job.”

I don’t intend the word playful to give a childish connotation to what she did, or to give the impression that she was not serious about her creations. Her art was her life, and, in true French filmmaker fashion, she worked at her chosen job right until the end, attending the Berlin Film Festival for the premiere of Varda by Agnès just weeks before she died. But she approached her art with a playful eye and created images, films, and installations that communicated the whimsical, colorful spirit inherent in life as she saw it. The documentary showcases this spirit with footage from her films and artwork but also with images of the artist herself—watching children set up cardboard cut-outs of seagulls on a beach or dancing in front of her display of brightly-colored plastic. Also running through the documentary are talks with Varda—master classes, though she eschewed this term, in which she spoke candidly with a variety of audiences about her techniques and philosophies. These are less about imparting wisdom to young aspiring filmmakers or curious art lovers and more about discussing how she saw the world and the thinking behind her films.


The documentary uses the talks to create a through line, but the film is also structured in a specific way. As Varda’s daughter, Rosalie Varda, pointed out in a Q&A at the New York Film Festival, the structure guides viewers through a body of work they may not be familiar with. It’s split into two main sections: the first part is her work with the medium of film, the second her work with digital. This makes it somewhat chronological, but within the first part Varda organizes her works in thematic groupings instead of years, including features like Cleo from 5 to 7, One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (1977) and Vagabond (1985); early documentaries like Black Panthers (1968) and Daguerrotypes (1976), and her early work in photography. This first part also includes films that don’t fit so easily into either features or documentaries, such as Jacquot de Nantes (1991), which she made for her husband. It’s a personal portrait of Demy’s life, with black and white sections exploring his experiences growing up, using actors to portray him and his family, intercut with color footage of him in the last months of his life.


There’s also Documenteur (1981), a story about a mother and son that Varda considered her most personal work. Although it is a fictional feature and she does not appear in it as she does in other films, her own son Mathieu plays the son and it expresses something intimate about her own identity and motherhood, a film that Rosalie confirmed her mother “put most of herself into.”



Agnès Varda Rosalie
Agnès and Rosalie Varda (2019)



The second part of Varda by Agnès begins with her esteemed documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), which marked her switch from film to digital. For this, she used a handheld digital camera that provided a new kind of freedom and began a new form of documentary that she would come to be known for in the 2000s. Unlike filmmakers that have a staunch dedication to film as the only true medium of cinema, Varda welcomed this new technology that allowed her to access people and places more readily and intimately, also making it easier to film herself in conversation with the subjects she was so curious about. This act of turning the camera on herself made her recognizable and familiar, with her lively yet calm voice, small stature, and distinct bob, blurring the line between life and art.


The section on digital work also delves into her art installations, which she used to explore the relationship between still and moving images, between life experience and art, and between subject and viewer. This includes a lovely scene of her showcasing a house she built from reels of her own and Demy’s past films—using the medium to create an art piece of remembrance rather than letting the reels collect dust in warehouses. “I live in cinema,” she quips, standing within the hanging film strips.


Throughout this documentary, shot, edited, and compiled with care by Varda and other collaborators, including Didier Rouget, her liveliness and unique eye are on display. During a scene about the film Vagabond, the documentary cuts from footage of the film itself with voiceover from Varda about the use of tracking shots to a tracking shot revealing Varda and the actress from Vagabond, Sandrine Bonnaire, sitting next to a fake film camera on a dolly in the middle of a field. We go from Varda talking about the film and an example of the technique to that same technique used in present day with the artist herself and the actress reminiscing atop the device used for said technique, bundled in coats in the middle of a rainy French countryside. Varda’s playfulness is central here—the humorous set-up with a crafty cardboard camera; the meta, personal aspect inherent in her documentaries; the deliberate and effective technique she employed in one film charmingly translated into a new one. 



“The third word is sharing. You don’t make films to watch them alone, you make films to show them.”


Varda by Agnès ends with footage from such now-quintessential documentaries as The Beaches of Agnès (2008) and Faces Places (2017), which capture her playful nature, interest in people, love of photography, and obsession with beaches. “If we opened people, we’d find landscapes, if we opened me, we’d find beaches,” she says.


From her first film, Le Pointe Courte, to her second to last, Faces Places, beaches are often a central setting. The final image of this final film is of her and JR, her collaborator on Face Places, sitting on a beach, enveloped by a windstorm, sand whipping around them, eventually obscured from the camera’s and audience’s view. What was it about beaches that she loved? Maybe the same thing she loved about cinema and art: the continual shifting that the ocean and beach exemplify, a game the land and sea play in which you can’t really say where one ends and the other begins. The same is true for the life of Agnès Varda and her incredible artistic legacy. I had a chance to meet Varda at the New York Film Festival in 2017 but couldn’t get into her sold-out talk. I’ve regretted this missed once-in-a-lifetime opportunity but with this documentary I realized, I have met her. And I’ll continue to get to know her through the work she left behind, an invitation to everyone to experience life as she saw it.



Varda by Agnès opened in New York City on November 22. Film at Lincoln Center will also have a retrospective of Varda’s work December 20 - January 9.




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