It was only a couple of months ago, not long after Agnès Varda’s sudden death, that during a screening of Faces Places (Visages Villages, 2017) in a tiny screening room in Edinburgh, the audience was warned, “If you got emotional watching this one, just wait for Varda by Agnès.” No truer words have ever been spoken. Screened as part of a retrospective at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Varda by Agnès (Varda par Agnès) is a full immersion into the Godmother of the French New Wave’s iconic films and lesser-known art installations.
Eleven years ago, when Varda turned 80 years old, she released what ought to have been her last documentary, The Beaches of Agnès (Les plages d’Agnès, 2008). Browsing through her memories, Varda gathered people, images and objects from her past in a never-ending series of cinematic madeleines. Celebrating her life as a continuous series of wondrous encounters, each of them directly or indirectly shaping her works, she was then about to part ways with the seventh art, leaving behind a sublime culmination of what cinema essentially is: a dream-box filled with our passions, demons and, inevitably, memories. Similarly, just before entering her 90s, Varda felt the urge to embark on a new journey resulting in a novel ode not to the things that made her, but to the ones she created. That was the genesis of Varda by Agnès.
On an empty stage, “Agnès V.” reads on the back of the director’s chair. In the background, many people are filling up the theatre, seating in eager anticipation of what’s to come. Suddenly, there she is — soothing voice and flaming red hair. Varda has come. Thanking her audience first, she doesn’t falter and starts by enunciating the three things that led her through life: inspiration, creation and sharing. Through a perfectly orchestrated edit that puts together various talks Varda gave in different locations, Varda by Agnès critically translates into a masterclass of elevated means and meanings. Incarnating both Virgil and Dante, Varda purposefully loses herself into the woods of her own artistic creations, making the audience simple viewers and, most importantly, listeners. Her journey is most rigorous though, not at all like some vague recollections of an old soul. Scattering technical explanations, anecdotes and some behind the scenes clips, Varda’s joie de vivre filters through, together with the inextinguishable playfulness she used to invest all her sets with.
From Cléo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962) to Faces Places, Varda touches upon many other films, some of them well-known, some others almost forgotten, like Uncle Yanco (Oncle Yanco, 1967) or A Hundred and One Nights (Les cents et une nuits de Simone Cinéma, 1994). Eventually, the main surprise is (re)discovering both Varda the photographer and Varda the visual artist, as many portraits of famous actors, directors, friends and people who inspired her along the way follow one another on screen before being admitted to her exhibition at the 2003 Biennale in Venice. At the end of this journey, the image of Varda as a versatile and multifaceted artist is undoubtedly reinforced.
Playing almost like a self-eulogy, Varda by Agnès resonates as both a manifesto to untamed creativity and a testament to future generations of artists. However, it’s when Varda turns to Jacquot (Jacquot de Nantes, 1991) and delves into the fond memories of her late husband Jacques Demy that the director reveals what cinema is for her. As Demy was dying, Varda decided to pay tribute to his childhood and life as a cineast, so Jacquot might be seen as an attempt to stop time, but it’s instead a desire to accompany it until the very end. And wouldn’t this idea be the same one that informs all of her documentary features? An unquenchable desire to record time; attesting its flowing and validating its existence — not a way to defy death, but at least an attempt to leave the stage with grace, or disappear into the mist of a wintery beach.
Serena Scateni (@29s____) is a film critic based in Edinburgh. She regularly contributes to Take One and has written for The Skinny and Screen Queens. Serena is a Japanese cinema enthusiast and usually ends up watching all the East-Asian films screening at festivals.