'Varda by Agnes' ('Varda par Agnes'): Film Review | Berlin 2019
French New Wave icon Agnes Varda surveys her six-decades-plus career as a filmmaker, feminist and visual artist in this doc, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.
At the Academy Awards a year ago, Agnes Varda became the oldest person ever to be nominated in a competitive Oscar category, for her hugely charming documentary Faces Places (Visages Villages), made in collaboration with the French visual artist JR. Just three months before, the godmother of French New Wave cinema picked up an honorary Oscar statuette recognizing her six-decades-plus career in film. It was an impressive double whammy for a 90-year-old director to score the Academy's equivalent of a lifetime achievement gong while still making new work that balances tireless human curiosity with avant-garde freshness.
World premiering out of competition in Berlin, the self-directed documentary Varda by Agnes is being trailed as what's likely to be Varda's final film. It is based on a series of recent lectures that the veteran Belgian-born auteur has given to live audiences, ostensibly on her cinematic technique. But it also features many of the quirky digressions and surreal flourishes that have increasingly become part of her stylistic palette during her latter-day career as a visual artist.
With heavyweight backers listed in the credits including Ava DuVernay, Eva Longoria, the Cartier Foundation in Paris and New York's Museum of Modern Art, Varda by Agnes should have sufficient cultural clout to find an audience on both big and small screens. Beyond its obvious film festival credentials, art galleries and high-end TV platforms will likely take an interest. In technical terms, this film lacks the full experimental flair of Varda's last few documentaries and feels a little too much like a filmed lecture in places. But the director is such an engaging presence onscreen — wry and humane, balancing sly social commentary with a playfully child-like attitude — that even a minor autumnal work like this is still a heart-warming mood-lifter.
Varda spends most of the doc in monologue mode, addressing theater audiences from her director's chair, picking through her career in a freewheeling and engagingly un-pompous manner. Her chronology is fairly fluid, but she divides her work into two loose sections: her “analogue” 20th century as a more conventional feature director and her “digital” 21st century reinvention as a visual artist. Among the archive classics she addresses are her innovative pre-New Wave debut La Pointe Courte (1954), her real-time masterpiece Cleo de 5 a 7 (1962) and her controversial proto-feminist fable Le Bonheur (1965), which she calls “a beautiful summer peach with a worm inside." Pointedly, Varda makes no mention of former friends like Jean-Luc Godard, whose callous no-show during the Faces Places shoot left her visibly shaken.
Varda by Agnes also features a wealth of archive footage teeming with stellar guests including her late husband Jacques Demy, Jane Birkin, Robert De Niro, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Catherine Deneuve, Alain Delon and more. Sandrine Bonnaire, the star of Varda's multiple prize-winner Vagabond (Sans Toit Ni Loi) (1985), also pops up in a present-day interview to share her memories of making the film. Inevitably, Varda can only skim the surface of her filmography, but she is self-deprecating enough to include resounding flops, such as her Hollywood-shot hippie-era experiment Lions Love (1969) and the all-star turkey One Hundred and One Nights (1995).
The doc's second half, focused on Varda's latter-day career as a visual and installation artist, inevitably feels more thinly spread and a niche interest. But there are some funny and poignant episodes here, too, including the director modelling a potato costume for the Venice Biennale, or building a colorful floral tomb for her dead cat, which becomes a permanent artwork at the Cartier Foundation in Paris. Her endearing lack of ego and enduring fascination with the lives of others are recurring motifs. “Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love,” she insists.
Varda by Agnes feels at times like a semi-sequel to the director's masterful bio-documentary The Beaches of Agnes (2008), clips of which feature heavily here. This film is less formally experimental and has the disadvantage of covering much of the same material with just a slender extra decade's worth of work between them. A Varda novice looking for a solid primer would be better served by the earlier effort. That said, taken together, both documentaries give a fully rounded picture of Varda's infectiously big-hearted worldview. At 90, she is a living artwork, her own greatest creation. We should all be so lucky to still be this curious, compassionate and creative at such a ripe old age.
Production companies: Cine-Tamaris, Arte France
Director-screenwriter: Agnes Varda
Co-director: Didier Rouget
Cinematographers: Francois Decreau, Claire Duguet, Julia Fabry
Editors: Agnes Varda, Nicolas Longinotti
Producer: Rosalie Varda
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (out of competition)
Sales company: MK2