“We laughed a lot as we fought for women’s rights,” Agnès Varda says while speaking of her 1977 feminist musical One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. She fidgets with her glasses before an opera house filled with admirers. Her last film, Varda by Agnès, which premiered this year in Berlin a month before her death, is a farewell conversation with the filmmaker in which she muses on her art, politics, life, and inspirations. The film is essentially a long masterclass, and while it had the potential to be a monotonous, self-centered diatribe, it’s instead a magical peek into Varda’s genius, peppered with her inimitable wit and humor.
Varda brings together footage of her various lectures, conversations with her collaborators and friends, and clips from her films with fresh commentary to build a narrative of her life and work. It’s simultaneously a basic filmmaking class and a poignant look at art as a form of autobiography. Varda constantly goes back and forth in time, employing her distinct editing and shooting techniques to make her swan song feel like a culmination of all her other films. She talks of her triumphs with immense energy and her failures with grace. It’s bittersweet in the wake of her death, but that quality also makes it even more poignant as a final cinematic memoir.
Varda’s influences were varied, ranging from cats to mirrors, from beaches to walls, from collectors to activists. The many conversations and excerpts demonstrate her genius for breathing coherence into chaos. Unsurprisingly, she also loved mosaics and collages. Notably, her love of documentary recurs, emphasized by her lifelong collaborations with non-actors and how she’s seamlessly weaved nonfiction elements into her fictional works. When the title character walks the streets of Paris in 1961’s Cléo from 5 to 7, Varda captures the way real pedestrians interact with her. Another favored motif is her dismantling of the idea of time. She makes a clear break between objective and subjective time, and observes how they interact within society. For example, Cléo from 5 to 7 covers only two objective hours of Cléo’s day, but subjectively it feels far longer, given her existential dread. She also concentrates her authorial (as opposed to directorial; Varda famously called her style “cinewriting”) focus on both the “silent majority” and the “enraged minority.” She made her 1976 documentary Daguerréotypes about the many people who lived and worked on the street where she lived, hidden from the bustle of the larger metropolis. As a contrast, she also made two documentaries on the Black Panthers in 1968.
“Obviously, I was a feminist. Was and still am,” Varda states in one of her talks. Perusing her whole career in retrospect, a talented sisterhood emerges. Interviewees include her longtime cinematographer Nurith Aviv and Vagabond star Sandrine Bonnaire. Through their conversations, we get an insight into their playful camaraderie and the immense mutual respect between all of them. “I wasn’t easy on you, I gave you a rough time,” Varda confesses when Bonnaire relates how unimpressed the director was when she ran to show her the real blisters she’d developed while digging up a garden. They talk about their artistic techniques, formalistic decisions, and reminisce about the joy and sense of adventure that accompanied the experience of working with Varda, who is ever generous with her praise and admiration.
At one point, a group of children watch Varda’s video installation documenting the making of a shell-laden grave for her beloved cat, Zgougou. Afterwards, one girl runs back in to watch it again. Out of breath, she says, “I came back because it’s better to watch the film alone. You feel things better.” Varda says that for her, the three key stages of filmmaking are inspiration, creation, and sharing. While death has stopped her from taking any more of the first two steps, the third is eternal. Varda by Agnès ends with scenes from Faces Places, her previous feature, made in collaboration with the French artist JR. In it, she talks about aging and her struggle with a degenerative eye disease. “Ephemeral images are my stock in trade,” she says in voiceover. As she and JR sit in the middle of a sandstorm, growing hazier, Varda speaks her final words on film: “I think this is how I will end this chat. Disappearing in a blur. Leaving you.”
Varda by Agnès screens October 9 and 10 at Film at Lincoln Center(165 W. 65th Street), as part of the 57th New York Film Festival. The film opens in theaters November 22.