Agnès Varda examines her art in this elementary, moving final testament

Ruairí McCann on Agnès Varda’s ‘Varda by Agnès’ (2019)

Even for one active for so long, the art life of the late Agnès Varda was uniquely varied in style, form and preoccupation. Yet, it would be fair to say that the last nigh on twenty of her sixty-plus years of making moving images, fromThe Gleaners & I / Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000) to this, her last film, stuck to a few certain consistencies. This includes the near-universal use of a digital palette and a final shift towards documentary and the essayistic over fiction, in a career where prior the needle had kept to wavering around the middle of this false dichotomy.

Then there is her presence, not just as a director and a narrator but as the star, appearing front and centre. Her work for cinema and television adhere to this latter aspect especially and are also all docu-picaresques, structured in bits and pieces and fuelled by travel. As well as by a perspective fixed, externally, on those underserved by society and internally too. For all of her films from this period are overtly introspective and increasingly concerned with reflection, with taking measure of one’s state of being and accomplishments as death approaches. For Varda, this has culminated with a cap to a career in the form of a retrospective title. For Varda by Agnès / Varda par Agnès, is a two-part, two hour miniseries made for French television which has found its way into cinemas internationally in a glued together feature form. The contents remain the same. Excerpts from two lectures Varda held on her career and her views on filmmaking, along with interpolated illustration in the form of archived and new interviews with the filmmaker and scenes from her work, which she comments on in detail.

Though in the main it moves chronologically, from around the beginning of her vocation in film to on the cusp of the end, pleasingly there is some back and forth in submission to the whims of digression, and when one aspect of a film chimes with another. Though it would be misleading to say the rhythm is free-floating when Varda by Agnès is so packed. For almost every one of her feature films is discussed and shown, along with a sizeable share of her shorts, her photography and her latter-day installation work. It is an abundance that risks, in such a relatively short span, making the film feel overly cluttered and with only perfunctory self-readings of her work. A trap that is sometimes sprung, especially for those who have extensive prior familiarity with Varda as a speaker.

Yet that potential hitch notwithstanding, even the information and anecdotes that have been much repeated, when strung together and expressed in the context one of her own films, reveal sides to a persona that her meme-ification as a kooky creature of pure spontaneity has cloaked. For we get extended bouts of Varda the formalist, discussing the particularly arranged and impressionist inspired colour coding of Le Bonheur (1965), the discordance generated by the right to left tracking shots of Vagabond (1985) and the challenges of shooting a short but logistically complex scene like a boat ride between two amorati (Catherine Devenue and Robert de Niro) in her extravaganza One Hundred And One Nights / Les cent et une nuits de Simon Cinéma (1995). Then there are the shades of her personality that this century has rarely seen. Such as the stern task master who governed the hard-bitten Vagabond — reflected upon in a chat with that film’s star Sandrine Bonnaire — or the artist daring enough to make the possibly perverse choice of casting her own son as the adolescent love object of a grown woman in Kung Fu Master / Le petit amour (1988).

Strong formal choices and creative stances, though while on show, are kept confined to the discussion and its subjects, in what is definitely her most straightforward feature film. Concerned almost exclusively with its function as a show and tell and final testament, a little impatience would occasionally fester when the film’s sole prerogative is the efficient relaying of information in order to go from one project to the next. Yet, to get too hung up on this would be to fault the film for what it is not trying to be and to fail to address it for what it is. Namely, a pedagogy made in the hindsight of statements to the effect that Faces, Places / Visages villages (2017) was essentially Varda’s final work as a filmmaker, in any form, and that a life overview as a multivalent work of art already exists in the shape of The Beaches of Agnès / Les plages d’Agnès (2008).

It would also mean ignoring the moving effect of said simplicity, with the most striking example being an interlude where Varda shows us her photography in a steady roll of still images. Almost all feature friends, most of whom have since departed. There are similar sequences in both The Beaches of Agnès and Faces, Places, where she uses her photography to describe growing old as, in part, a gathering of losses. Though in this less tear strewn and grandiose incarnation, the focus is just on the photographs. Presented with a slowness to the cutting that allows an audience to scrutinise the personages and one after the other, instead of all in a single shot, so the effect is accumulative. The reaction this scene inspires is as powerful as the one produced by its kin but also brighter. For it is an acknowledgment that even when faced with the inevitable dying of the light, with the reality that life is full of pain and for multitudes it is disenfranchised and cut short, there still is the capacity for it to be full until its fit to burst.

Varda by Agnès is showing in cinemas now.

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.