Director: Agnes Varda
Screenplay: Agnes Varda
Starring: Agnes Varda, Sandrine Bonnaire, Herve Chandes, Nurith Aviv, Esther Levesque
Length: 115 minutes
Varda By Agnes is a playful auto-biographic film delivered in the format of a lecture by the protagonist of the documentary, French film director Agnes Varda. We learn that Agnes Varda is more than a film director; that she is a photographer, a creator of art installations, and a song-writer. Her lecture takes place in a series of theatre halls, where she utilises projections of clips from her films, both fiction and documentary, and also photographs, and reports from her installations.
Agnes Varda explicitly attributes three principles to her creative process and purpose of her work; inspiration, creation, and sharing. She goes on to explore these themes in association her work for the remainder of the lecture.
Agnes Varda is perhaps best known for her association with French New Wave cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, and the second film she directed, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962). This film is set over two hours, following a pop star as she awaits the results of a biopsy. The premise makes for an urgent atmosphere, and Agnes Varda discusses the purpose of the film, broaching both existential themes (coming to terms with mortality, a sense of despair) and feminist theme (how a woman is viewed). As with much of Agnes Varda’s work, Cleo from 5 to 7 merges documentary and fiction, filmed on location in Paris, using non-professional actors and happening upon everyday scenes on Paris streets.
Agnes Varda talks of her life with her husband, director Jacques Demy. Whilst they lived and travelled together, they never actually collaborated in making films. Following the explosion of French New Wave cinema in the late 1950s and 1960s Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy spent some time living in North California. In1968 she made a film Black Panthers, about the protest in Oakland where a collective of black activists gathered to protest to free Huey P Newton and protecting the black community from the Police. Whilst in USA Agnes Varda had associated herself with American pop artist Andy Warhol, and went on to make a film titled Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969), starring actors from the cult musical, and later film, Hair (1979). Lions Love (…and Lies) was subsequently considered by critics as a time capsule from counter-cultural period. The clips from these and other films reveal how the wide spread introduction of colour in cinema allowed Varda’s to define her style, which is delivered in pallets of bold primary like colours, especially blue, yellow, red and purple.
In her lecture Varda discusses her involvement in the fight for women’s rights, in 1971, Varda was one of the 343 women who signed the Manifesto of the 343, admitting they had had an abortion despite it being illegal in France at the time to do so. She also gives examples of her work in other media, such as photography, mosaic, and collage. To this regard Agnes Varda demonstrates how the cross-fertilisation of different artistic approaches and disciplines exist within her ouvre. One interesting example is her discovery of digital cameras, which enabled her to make the documentary The Gleaners and I (2000) which is a film about people who hunt for food, knickknacks and thrown away items.
One scene from the film is projected at the lecture, which is about a man who gleans disposed potatoes that are deemed to be the wrong shape to be sold in supermarkets. Agnes Varda chances upon a heart-shaped potato, which in turn links to her long-established affinity with heart-shaped objects generally. As part of the documentary she goes on to collect heart-shaped potatoes, and as a spin-off she eventually produces a heart-shaped potato themed installation; Patatutopia (2003).
In Varda By Agnes Agnes Varda invites a selection of the people she has collaborated with to discuss their experiences. Among those in conversation in the film are Sandrine Bonnaire, who played Mona in Varda’s 1985 film Vagabond, the filmmaker and director of photography Nurith Aviv, who shot for Varda on Daguerréotypes (1976), Jane B. for Agnès V. (1987) and Mur Murs (1981) and Hervé Chandès, General Director of the Foundation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris. Varda’s discussions with these peoples is further demonstration of her approach to film making, which is in some parts collaborative.
As the lecture approaches it’s end, Varda talks of her special relationship with beaches and landscapes, and the sense evoked in her films that these places enable people to open up themselves. With the explosion of digital devices and democratisation of the means to make film, Varda talks of the ephemeral nature of art, and her appreciation that others give her art special store. Her outlook is wise and life affirming, and expertly conveyed in this entertaining and heart warming film.
There are some interesting extras on the disc, including a talk with an audience at the BFI Southbank, and also shorts looking at her interest in photography and the age of Instagram. There is also a booklet of essays, which in themselves are illuminating and demonstrate the extended influence of her work, which has only really becomes widely available outside of France in the last ten years.
- Agnès Varda in Conversation (2018, 83 mins): the legendary director gives an illustrated talk about her career to an audience at BFI Southbank. Recorded on 10 July 2018
- Agnès Varda: Filmmaker, Photographer, Instagrammer (2018, 12 mins): the veteran filmmaker and photographer explains how Instagram has become a favourite medium for her. Shot at the BFI Reuben Library in the summer of 2018
- Agnès Varda: Righteous Joy and Anger (2019, 8 mins): film critic and author, Amy Simmons, discusses some of Varda’s lesser-known films in this audiovisual essay
- Original theatrical trailer
- Illustrated booklet with essays by So Mayer and Isabel Stevens, a contemporary review, credits, notes on the extras and more
Varda by Agnès comes to DVD/Blu-ray on 4 November 2019, released in a Dual Format Edition and on TVOD.