“I never wanted to say anything. I just wanted to look at people and share.” – Agnès Varda, January 2019.
Film-making is medium often driven by ego. Many directors, filmmakers, and artists use the medium to express something about themselves and gain something in the process. It is ego-centric and all about their vision. Agnès Varda was never concerned with what she gained from her film-making, but rather used it to mirror and express something about our world which she found particularly fascinating.
On March 29, 2019 the world mourned for our delightful mother of the French New Wave and the whimsical, thoughtful films she made. Even if those in the mainstream were unfamiliar with her work, there was still a magic about this woman who had defied the sexism and odds of French film-making in the 50s and 60s to be celebrated across the world. Late in the film she tells us, plainly and honestly, that she began this project when she turned 80 because she wanted to examine her work before she died. It is a sobering thought that this two-hour semi-biographical piece of cinema took close to ten years to complete.
Framed by her retrospective at the 2019 Berlinale Festival, Varda herself accompanies us on a journey through her photography, films, and exhibitions, in order to appreciate and understand her work. In an interview with Rhonda Richford of The Hollywood Reporter, she said that the film is divided into two parts: the 20th century and the 21st century. “In the 20th century, I was mostly a filmmaker, and in the 21st century, I am an artist”. While this is largely true, it could be said that Varda was always an artist. This film is not a logical progression from A to Z but a movement through what interested Varda and what drove her to make films. With a mix of archive footage, documentary footage, and clips from her talks at Berlinale, the film attempts to encompass an entire life of creativity.
Static shots of her inspiring Berlinale retrospective are juxtaposed with purpose-shot sequences of her explaining how she shot scenes from her films Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond), Murs Murs, and Le Bonheur, among others. There is a playful quality to every detailed interpretation of her processes. Varda is not here to explain to you her scientific method for making works of art, but to explore the quirks of film-making and people that inspired her to pursue a specific project.
The second half of the film moves from the late past to the slightly more recent. It may seem an unequal division as Varda had almost double the time in the 20th century than she had in the 21st, but that does not mean that the second half of the film is lesser. A particularly interesting sequence surrounds the development of her exhibition ‘A Cinema Shack’. Obsessed by the way film reels have gone from the lifeblood of film to largely disused junk, Varda began collecting and recycling these artefacts. Transforming a disused print of ‘Le Bonheur’ into a sunflower-filled greenhouse in an exhibition space in Paris. It is this kind of perspective on art and film that made Varda’s work so unique. When the stock could no longer bring people happiness, she found another way that her films could convey something about the world around us.
Often with legendary filmmakers, there is a tendency to assume everything they do has some deep, rich, psychological reason that film scholarship can mine endlessly for meaning. Varda was a deeply thoughtful, creative, inspiring, artist-filmmaker. But to probe her work to find a specific meaning and message in this film, and perhaps her oeuvre, would be to do her a disservice. Her interview with The Hollywood Reporter touches on an important point about her last work. She tells Richford “I never wanted to say anything, I just wanted to look at people and share. There never was a message that you should get and understand.”
Her process was one of inspiration, creation, and sharing. A real spark was fundamental to everything she did. The act of creating was more important to her than the quality of the result. And she did not make films for herself, but to share with others. These are the three tenants of Agnès Varda’s creative process and this is what she learns through her final work of art. Varda by Agnès is a thoughtful, and inspiring, window into an artist’s oeuvre, where wise, playful grandmother takes one by the hand and offers up a new way of seeing the world.
by Mia Garfield
Mia Garfield has just finished a degree in Film at Falmouth University. She has just finished her first short ‘Sonder’, keep an eye out for it at festivals in the UK. A big lover of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Mythology, her taste is varied. Her favourite films include Howl’s Moving Castle, Memoirs of A Geisha, How to Train Your Dragon, and Big Hero 6. You can find her @miajulianna2864