There’s a scene in Agnes Varda’s 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary Faces Places, where she talks to her collaborator JR about the inevitable fact that she knows she is reaching the end of her life, and how she seems to have made peace with the idea. She expresses the joys and beauties of aging, how she has lived her life to the fullest, and that is ready to embrace what comes next. It’s a moment of such poetic self-reflection on life’s many gifts and a graceful acceptance of the morbid reality that all of us will eventually have to face, no matter how long we want to delay the thought of it.
On March 29, 2019, the legendary feminist pioneer of the French New Wave and every cinephile’s coolest grandma passed away at the age of 90, leaving behind an unmatched legacy of trailblazing cinema that are all rich with empathy, artistic freedom, challenges to traditional ideals, and the inspiration to create and share with the world.
Varda by Agnes is the final film to be directed by Agnes Varda and truly feels like the type of film that every director deserves to have as their swan song. A reflection on the legacy and the career that they have cultivated over the years, the impact that their films have made over the course of film history, and on the life that they’ve lived. Comparable to another film of hers from 10 years prior, The Beaches of Agnes, a documentary in which she had also recounted her life and her career at that point, but as she even freely admits in her latest film, her views on aging and approaching death were much more pessimistic and fearful back when she was at age 80 than at age 90, where she’s come to terms with the idea and has grown content with her life.
The documentary is framed around some of the last Q&A discussions and screenings that Varda had held prior to her death, which are used as the basis for introducing one of Varda’s defining movies, the intention behind her creative process on each film, where she was at during that point of her life, and the lessons that she had taken from the experience of making the film. Varda begins the discussion by preaching the three most important values to her throughout her filmmaking journey: inspiration, creation, and sharing. In her words, inspiration is the reason why you are making the movie in the first place, creation is the method behind how you go about making it, and sharing the film with an audience once it is finished is who you make the film for. We get to see how each of these creative notions were put into practice throughout the makings of her most beloved works of art such as Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, as well as the art she has made outside the medium of film such as her photography and her art installation exhibits.
The pure sense joy and inspiration that Varda’s works have elicited out of her admirers over the course of several decades is clearly evident through the interactions she has with those who engage with them, from respected filmmakers commending her artistic expression, to even children transfixed by the grave of her cat, which she managed to turn into art. The fact that she was able to make art that engages not exclusively with high-minded art critics or other creative types, but also younger children with a less developed understanding of greater issues of how the world works, speaks to not only the creative versatility of Varda as an artist, but to the universal sense of human empathy that her work is always infused with.
The idea of a prolific director’s final film being a documentary about themselves, their career, and their work has the potential to feel like an act of hubris on the part of the filmmaker to celebrate themselves in what they know will be their last project. Why Varda by Agnes never approaches this area is because while the film can be viewed as a celebration of oneself, it is not Varda celebrating herself, but rather celebrating those individuals who make art to share with the world by using herself as an example for an entire generation to love and celebrate themselves in general, and not just exclusively through the means of art.
At 120 minutes, the runtime extends far longer than a documentary of this nature probably warrants being, especially considering that Varda has made some other similar documentaries in the past. Seeing how this is the last time that we will ever be able to see a new film from her or delight in her presence, however, for those hardcore Varda fans, especially after her death, there’s probably no such thing as too much time spent with her.