Varda by Agnes, documentary, not rated, 115 minutes, in English and French with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles
Admirers of Agnès Varda, who died in March at 90, may be looking for a fitting remembrance. Especially in the last decades of her long career, she was an unusually and deeply companionable filmmaker. Her death feels like the loss of a friend, even to people who never met her. But those who are unfamiliar with Varda’s work may be wondering where to begin. With characteristic generosity, her final film, Varda by Agnès, answers both needs. It’s a perfect introduction and a lovely valediction.
The movie, a blend of personal essay and greatest hits album, finds her in a ruminative mood. As she did in previous auto-documentaries — The Beaches of Agnès (2008) in particular — she intersperses clips from her back catalog with reminiscences and reflections. Speaking before audiences and also directly into the camera, she narrates a brisk chronicle of a six-decade career of remarkable creativity. Both newcomers and hard-core Vardaphiles will come away with a list of films to see and re-see.
Varda’s first film, La Pointe Courte (1955), was a bridge between the neorealism of the 1940s and the French New Wave. Her friendships with Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, her marriage to filmmaker Jacques Demy, and her skeptical, energetic, unpretentious style linked her permanently to that movement. Cléo From 5 to 7, from 1962, is one of its touchstones, even as it anticipates the feminist cinema of the 1970s.
She played a central part in that as well, but Varda by Agnès is above all a testament to her individualism. Her political commitments are matter-of-factly feminist and bluntly democratic. She follows her younger self from France to California, where she made a documentary on the Black Panthers and a handful of hard-to-classify films. Her best-known narrative features — Cléo, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), and Vagabond (1985) — have the sting of reality, and a compassionate clarity about the freedom, danger, and pleasure that women face in their lives.
Varda by Agnès divides Varda’s career into two major periods. The second begins in 2000, with The Gleaners and I, the first of a series of personal, cerebral, altogether uncategorizable projects (encompassing still photography, multimedia installations, and cinema), in which she turns the camera on herself. She is a playful, charming, and quizzical presence, but also a rigorous investigator, a questioner of social systems, collective memory, and her own assumptions. If she comes across as a grandmotherly figure, she is less the kind of grandmother who spoils you rotten than the kind who sees through all your nonsense and loves you anyway.
She was also, as Varda by Agnès makes wonderfully clear, an enthusiastic mentor and an inspiring teacher. Her discussion of her philosophy and her methods — the why and the how of her movies — is incisive and instructive. She helps you think about her art, which in turn helps you think about everything else.