The leitmotif of Agnès Varda’s career over the last twenty years has been recycling. Whether it’s potatoes or French architecture, there’s been attention paid in Varda’s more contemporaneous work to the place and purpose of things after their function has seemingly passed. It’s an undertaking which sounds bleak, but for Varda, this investigative streak has proven liberating, even joyous. It’s a retaliative mode of creation which extends to her heartbreaking swan song. The docu-essay Varda by Agnès, shows the filmmaker’s own storied work recycled itself as a simultaneous autobiography and formal exercise in teaching a new generation of filmmakers. As one of the most crushing goodbyes in the history of film, Varda by Agnès reminds us not only of one of the most important voices in the world of film, but the importance — and potential temporality — of the medium altogether.
For much of the film’s first half, Varda recounts her career in a fairly traditional presentation, guiding us through clips of her work as she monologues, mostly off screen, to a theater of hopeful future filmmakers. Even in this setup, Varda manages to play with the concept of “losing an audience”; she at one point faces an empty auditorium, a disappearance of her audience. The moment appears to question how long cinema’s pioneers can retain the interest and acceptance they’ve acquired. What Varda builds thereafter hopefully provides an answer: for as long as we still make and watch films.
Varda by Agnès isn’t the first time its author has toyed with autobiography on screen. As perhaps the single most underrated filmmaker of her time, Varda has been writing her own history over the last couple of decades, and has been center stage in nearly all of her films since the turn of the century. That takes on a whole new urgency in here, an adieu that’s as celebratory as it is distinctly melancholic. Varda hardly needs to sign off with a plea, though there is a sense of responsibility in experiencing it; a signoff that asks us to keep the memory of Varda and her films alive.
The film’s haunting final scene reappropriates the disappointment in the ending of Varda’s second-to-last film Faces Places (2017). The film now infamously ends on a failed promise from fellow French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard, with a final gesture from co-director JR emulating a story which Varda tells about Godard on the set of her own Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962). It’s a bittersweet ending, but would have served an ill fitting final moment to the whole of Varda’s career; directing us towards the work of another director would hardly be appropriate for Varda’s singular voice. The proper ending to her career in Varda by Agnès uses footage from Faces Places, but instead portrays her and JR on the beach, dissolving into the day’s fog. A haunting, almost ghostly moment in which Varda seems to disappear into the very fabric of her work, there to live, in a perfect world, for an eternity. Varda by Agnès achieves more than a standard end-of-career recollection: Varda directs our focus to the afterlife of her career, offering punctuation which hardly seems final.
The most exciting concept brought to the foreground occurs once Varda reaches some of her efforts off the traditional film screen, showing her installations in museums and public projections of her more experimental work. One such installation serves as the perfect allegory for Varda’s use of physical film: the “cinema shack”, a greenhouse structure made of rich, colorful 35mm film.
Anyone who’s shot on film knows that there’s a certain undertaking of responsibility to it. Film takes up physical space that digital can’t exactly emulate. Beyond aesthetics, film is unrecoverable by design; to waste film is to waste space, more or less. Agnès Varda never wasted an inch of film, but she’s one of the few proper auteurs to have made good use of it past its initial form, as the documentary shows in beautiful, revelatory detail. The first irrecoverably heart-puncturing moment of the documentary comes in the ethos of Varda’s cinema shacks; the prime example illustrated being her 2018 piece The Greenhouse of Happiness, forged from her uber-colorful Le Bonheur (1965). With empty film canisters forming an archway to the shack itself, decorated with sunflowers, the interactive space almost resembles a loving shrine for a film that’s readily available, one that exists in all its brilliant extremity, but still feels almost like a memory in this particularly loving, post-cinematic presentation. One can’t help but behold the installment and feel a certain melancholy to it, a reminder of the potential temporality of all film.
It becomes clear that Varda by Agnès is the “cinema shack” concept as committed to a feature, a cyclical but beautiful reflection and reprojection of some of the medium’s most foundational contributions. It’s a film which feels as much like an ending as it does a new beginning. It certainly shouldn’t serve as a substitute for exploring the director’s filmography in its unabridged entirety, with films just as rich in ideas as this one, but the importance of it as its own professed final chapter is immeasurable.