“I’m disappearing into a blur, I’m leaving you.” These prophetic words accompanied by the fading image of Agnès Varda blown away in a flurry of sand on a Normandy beach conclude her final work. In this artistic testament filmed as a lesson in cinema – although she prefers the term “chat” – Varda opens the doors to her creative world.
Viewers listen as she looks back over her career, using clips from her work and often unseen archive images such as rushes from her first movie, La Pointe Courte, shot in Sète in 1954. She discusses the New Wave (Cléo From 5 to 7), her socially-minded cinema (Vagabond), and her first steps in documentary-making when, lacking sufficient funding, she filmed people in her street (Daguerréotypes).
She also remembers the people who filled her life, including the elders in the fishing village who taught her to repair nets; the stage actor Jean Vilar for whom she photographed the Avignon Festival; her husband Jacques Demy; her life in California, Demy and Varda’s home in the late 1960s, where she met the Black Panthers and reconnected with her “American uncle” Jean Varda (Uncle Yanco); her favorite actresses from Jane Birkin to Sandrine Bonnaire; and her children.
She recounts her feminist battles and often comical installations, such as the mausoleum for her late cat Zgougou (La cabane du chat) featured in the garden of the Fondation Cartier, and Patatutopia, personally exhibited at the Venice Biennale by Varda… dressed as a potato. This relentless joie de vivre earned her an article in the Hollywood Reporter that described her as a “mischievous old lady.”
In 2017, Varda became the first female director to receive an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. Her dance steps on the stage of the Governors Awards delighted the crowd. Soon after, she won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for her movie Faces Places, co-directed with French artist JR. She once again amused the Hollywood elite by sending cardboard cut-outs of herself to a dinner she was unable to attend.
Varda by Agnès is not an exhaustive inventory, but rather offers a certain coherence to a constantly reinvented career spanning more than 60 years, defined by a timely freedom of expression. The movie has concluded a chapter begun by another autobiographical documentary, The Beaches of Agnès (2008), released the year she turned 80. Farewell, Agnès.
=> Varda by Agnès (115 min) opens at Film Forum and Film at Lincoln Center in New York on November 22, and will be followed by a nationwide rollout.