At the start of Agnes Varda’s final film, Varda By Agnes, she sits before a captive audience and lists off the three words that “guide” her life and work: Inspiration, Creation and Sharing. Even if you’re coming to her work for the first time with this film, it’s easy to see where each word fits into her body of work as well as her spirited and humbling outlook on life. Assembled through footage from a series of live audience talks that Varda gave regarding her career as well as numerous clips from her films and other fun surprises, Varda By Agnes retains the personal diary scope and feeling of her most recent documentaries, especially Faces Places and Beaches of Agnes, while also managing to feel like uncharted territory. She has never been one to boast about her accomplishments, and that’s no different here, but this very much feels like an artist looking back at what she created over seven decades and being proud of the work and eager to continue to share it, even after her death.
Anyone who ever got the chance to experience Varda speaking in person, which was a real treat, will feel right at home as soon as the film starts. She sits, relaxed, in a director’s chair with her name painted on the back of it and speaks both carefully and exuberantly about any given topic she is on. It’s hard not to become overwhelmed with emotion when her eyes light up, or even tear up, when talking about her feminist work of the 1960s, or Jacques Demy’s worsening health. This is someone who has lived a storied life even outside of her cinema work, even if it is constantly framed by that. Yet there’s very little actual framework to go on here; Varda states that these talks won’t adhere to chronology – which she charmingly confuses for criminology – as she has trouble keeping dates in order, but there is a clear separation between her shot on film narrative and documentary work and the later adoption of digital video, which also influenced her art installations in galleries around the world.
It’s obvious while watching Varda By Agnes that it is intended to be a final film. Though you could potentially say the same thing about Beaches of Agnes or Faces Places before it, as both explicitly deal with Varda’s declining health and aging process, which is beautifully documented by a filmmaker very aware of her lifespan, in Varda By Agnes we get to witness Varda coming to terms with her life. She discusses every major film of her career, her various art exhibits, her marriage to Jacques Demy and their children, her activism and, of course, her friendship with JR – which makes this a fitting double feature and companion to Faces Places. Like Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s similarly structured documentary De Palma, it’s a treat to have a filmmaker discuss their career candidly, but unlike that film, the candor extends beyond what is considered cinematic. Inspiration, Creation and Sharing aren’t just “three words” to Varda, they’re the process of working and living and Varda By Agnes utilizes all three both within the film and as a result of its very existence. It’s an elegiac yet triumphant tribute to one of the world’s greatest artists, made by the artist and ready to be shared. And, yes, there’s plenty of cats.