The late Agnès Varda, feted visual storyteller and precursor to the French New Wave, weaves a rich tapestry of her inspirations, memories and processes in Varda by Agnès. Composed of snippets from public talks, film clips, behind-the-scenes footage and new interviews, the film is a sprawling yet intimate retrospective of a lifetime behind the camera.
Guided by theme and location rather than chronology, Varda speaks deliberately and passionately about her work and her collaborators. Her vast oeuvre spans feature films, documentaries and mixed media installations, effortlessly switching medium to do the most justice to her subjects. She outlines early on the three equally important principles that underpin her work: Inspiration, Creation and Sharing.
Inspiration, for Varda, is everywhere. The bustling Paris background shots in Cleo From 5 to 7 became the focus of the documentary Daguerréotypes, chronicling her close neighbours and local merchants in her home street of Rue Daguerre. Impressionist paintings invoke the ‘template of happiness’ that serves as the basis of tragic drama Le Bonheur. Discarded potatoes in a field became the triptych Patatutopia, sensational at the time for the resin potato costume she wore to the opening but emblematic of something bigger – Varda’s ability to see the significance in small things.
Creation, how the film is actually made, is where Varda’s playful spirit shined. In Le Bonheur, key scenes fade not to black but to the dominant colour in each one. For Vagabond, she recounts using a dozen minute-long tracking shots to capture the character’s isolation within the French landscape. We see the fun she derives from her work: creating fake interviews and imagined films for Jane Birkin in Jane B. for Agnès V., creating an entire art installation around plastic flip flops, and flying Robert De Niro by Concorde only to plunge him into a river in One Hundred and One Nights!
Sharing, ‘because you don’t make films to watch them alone’. Often eschewing big-name actors for unknowns or even her own family, Varda takes real joy in collaboration, recalling with affection the many people involved on both sides of the camera. Most notable is her partnership with urban photographer JR, the subject of 2018’s charming Faces Places. The behind-the-scenes snippets shown here depict a growing friendship between the two that is every bit as fascinating as the subjects they meet.
Varda by Agnès is a tender, moving portrait of both the artist and the art – an inspiring primer for those new to her work and a fitting celebration for longtime fans.
“Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love, if you find them extraordinary, as I did.”
Whether behind the camera, or in front of it as she often was, Agnès Varda always defied a conventional approach. In Varda by Agnès, this multi-award-winning and iconic filmmaker takes the audience on a journey through her remarkable life and career in her characteristically open and contemplative yet playful way.
Recordings of public appearances and conversations with her collaborators are weaved in with film clips and gallery installation footage as we’re guided through her rich and varied work and hear her reflections on her creative process and her talents as a photographer, filmmaker and installation artist.
The film is out now at select Picturehouses. Book your tickets now.