I wish I had encountered the works of Agnès Varda earlier. During that wild period when I relentlessly devoured many works of various great filmmakers as your average young cinephile, I somehow missed many of her notable films except “Cléo from 5 to 7” (1962), and I only came to learn more of her life and career after reading Roger Ebert’s enthusiastic review on her acclaimed documentary film “The Beaches of Agnès” (2008), which I finally watched it early in last year along with her two other excellent documentaries “The Gleaners and I” (2001) and “Faces Places” (2017).
When her latest documentary film “Varda by Agnès” was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, I was glad to see Varda keeping going strong as usual even though she was soon going to have her 91st birthday, but then she suddenly passed away on March 29th, and I still remember well when I came across the news of her death via Twitter. At that time, I was going to a local arthouse movie theater for watching Oscar-nominated documentary film “RBG” (2018), and, while quite surprised, I instantly told the news to an acquaintance of mine, who was also caught off guard by the news as a fellow cinephile.
While it feels more poignant now as becoming Varda’s last work, “Varda by Agnès” feels like a pleasant stroll nonetheless as vividly showing us that Varda did not lose any of her wit and spirit even around the end of her life and career. As being warm, witty, and ebullient as usual, she is willing to sit down and then talk a lot about her life and career in front of her audiences, and watching her musing on many things including her notable films is pretty entertaining to say the least.
At first, she tells us about the early years of her filmmaking career. After debuting with her first feature film “La Pointe Courte” (1955), she made several short films as honing her filmmaking skills, and then she rose to prominence with her second feature film “Cléo from 5 to 7”, a great film which sensitively observes the 90 minutes of a young popular singer who becomes quite agitated by the sudden possibility of terminal illness. Although she simply shot the film around real urban locations in Paris mainly due to its small production budget, Varda effortlessly imbues the film with considerable verisimilitude, and she explains a bit on a number of subtle visual touches in the film including a brief moment steadily showing the heroine walking down the stair step by step.
Around the time when “Cléo from 5 to 7” came out, Varda married Jacques Demy, with whom she went to Hollywood not long after the critical/commercial success of Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964). During their time in Hollywood, Varda made a few works including a short film about the Black Panther Party, and she enthusiastically tells us about how much she was interested in capturing the dynamic cultural trend in the American society during the 1960s.
Although she was relatively less prolific during the 1970s, Varda subsequently came back with “Vagabond” (1985), which has been regarded as another great film in her career. At one point, Varda gives us an amusing moment to demonstrate the importance of the frequent tracking shots throughout the film, and we also get another fun moment when her leading actress Sandrine Bonnaire appears along with her and then talks about how it was often difficult for her to play her rather unlikable character.
In the 1990s, Varda made “Jacquot de Nantes” (1991), which meant a lot to her because it was inspired by the early years of her husband, who died not long before the movie came out. While “A Hundred and One Nights” (1995) was a critical/commercial flop, the movie had various movie stars ranging from Marcello Mastroianni and Anouk Aimée to Robert De Niro and Harrison Ford (!), and Varda recounts a fun episode on how strenuously De Niro prepared himself for his one-day shooting.
As entering the 21st century, Varda found an unexpected source of artistic inspiration: digital camera. As fascinated with the possible artistic freedom through digital camera, she decided to use it for vividly capturing various kinds of gleaning, and that led to not only “The Gleaners & I” but also a wonderful piece of installation art which was inspired by the production of that fabulous documentary. While subsequently making several other pieces of installation art, she kept working as a filmmaker as usual, and she certainly delighted us a lot with “The Beaches of Agnès” and “Faces Places”. She became more aware of her mortality than before, that did not stop her at all from pursuing her artistic vision as well as joie de vivre, but and these two lovely documentaries clearly showed us that she was still willing to share more with us through her art despite her declining physical condition.
Although it is relatively less special compared to Varda’s recent documentary films, “Varda by Agnès” is a solid swan song on the whole, and I was constantly amused and entertained by what Varda shows and tells during its 114-minute running time. I must point out that the documentary is technically more or less than a series of short lectures, and I still wish it would tell us more about Varda’s overlooked works such as “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (1977), but it did a fairly good job of giving us the compact overview of Varda’s life and career at least. We were lucky to see how steadily and diligently this great filmmaker had advanced during last six decades, and we will surely miss her more as time goes by.