A loving farewell

Filmmaker Agnès Varda’s documentary, both film history and biopic, is a parting love letter from a remarkable artist

BRATTLEBORO — Agnès Varda was an innovator and creative force in French cinema going back to the time of the French New Wave in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, she has forged a path that's all her own.

The documentary Varda by Agnès, produced by her daughter, Rosalie Varda, takes the filmgoer on a tour of “the Vard's” oeuvre, even giving us a glimpse of her years as a still photographer. It is both biopic and film history.

In a review of films at the New York Film Festival, A.O. Scott, writing in The New York Times, said it was “[t]he film I loved most in this festival,” calling it “both an introduction and a valediction.”

The film opens with Varda seated before a large audience in an opera house that has been converted for the occasion into a theater. We become part of this audience, the filmmaker speaking directly to us in a conversational style.

With humility, Varda tells her audience this large theater intimidates her. But, sitting in her director's chair with “Agnes V” on the back, she is clearly self-possessed, confident.

“Three words are important to me,” Varda states. “Inspiration, creativity, and sharing.” This is the architecture of the film...throughout, she explains and expands upon these three concepts, what they mean to her, and how they played out in her filmmaking life.

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An early classic, a film that made Varda known to the avant-garde film scene, was Cléo from 5 to 7.

For two hours, Varda follows, in real time, a woman who is awaiting the results of a test for cancer as she roams Paris and has various encounters.

There are long, slow shots, and we take in the passing scene as if through her eyes, as well as watching the protagonist as she moves about the city. Her camera becomes the eyes, searching the face of her protagonist.

Varda exclaims about this method, “When you take your time you're really in it!” - a technique that becomes especially important in later documentary work.

Varda talks about her involvement in “body politics.” She is a feminist, she tells us. Several films of the 1960s and 1970s, Le Bonheur (1965) and One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977) among them, are films whose female protagonists joyfully live by their own lights, not dependent on the men in their lives.

We see snippets of these films, with Varda describing their creation, what inspired them.

Her comments - astute, perceptive, and personal - constitute a mini course in the art of film à la Varda. We get film history, too, as she brings in some of the renowned names of French cinema –– Alain Resnais, Jacques Demy (to whom she was married), and others.

At one point, speaking of the films The Beaches of Agnès (2008) and Faces Places (2017), Varda says, “I have this thought that if you cut people open, you would find landscapes!”

“For me,” she continues, “that would be beaches. The beach has everything - sky, sea, earth.”

I loved this quote because it seems such a perfect example of the filmmaker's art-thought, imagination and imagery becoming one.

Through the force of her personality and generosity of spirit, as well as a strong will (as we see in an interview with Sandrine Bonnaire, an actress she worked with many years ago on Vagabond (1985), Varda has created an extraordinary number of cutting edge and insightful films - an accomplishment for anyone, let alone a woman in the very masculine world of filmmaking.

* * *

In her later years, which Varda memorably describes as watching a train bear down on her as she approached 80, the filmmaker discovered the digital camera. That technology precipitated a decade of perhaps the most important work of her career.

Drawn to digital because she could get closer to her subjects (“the little camera didn't scare them the way a film camera would”), her films became more intimate.

The first film that she made using the digital camera was The Gleaners and I (2000), a huge hit around the world and a popular entry in the 2001 Women's Film Festival in Brattleboro.

The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002), The Beaches of Agnès (2008), and Faces Places (2017), followed.

Varda is listed as both a writer and director of Varda by Agnès. I see the film as a parting love letter to the film-going world. She died in March at the age of 90.

The documentary brings to us, in images and words, a remarkable artist. Intensely, passionately humanist at a time when humanism is being trampled upon in so many quarters, it is something to be grateful for.

A.O. Scott is worth quoting again: “Varda by Agnès is a perfect starting point for anyone who wants to understand what movies can be: local and global; personal and political; difficult and delightful.”

This documentary, the opening film for the Brattleboro Film Festival, is a must-see for anyone passionate about art, film, or understanding the soul of an artist. You are in for a treat.

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