Berlinale 2019 Review: ‘Varda by Agnes’ is the perfect end to an unparalleled career

To capture a lifetime of greatness in just two hours seems like an impossible task, but in ‘Varda by Agnes’, the French New Wave legend accomplishes this and more, producing a documentary which feels almost like an embrace from a wise relative. As she casts her eye back across six decades of her work, Varda recounts anecdotes from her past, accompanied by friends and colleagues, whilst delving into her fond outlook towards film as a medium. In this age of cynicism, 90-year-old Varda’s eternally bright acceptance of modernity feels like a breath of fresh air, and makes for a viewing experience which is truly magical for any film fan. 

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© Cine Tamaris 2018

As an auteur, Varda is confident and passionate when discussing her work, outlining her motivations in an accessible and welcoming manner. The film traces her career with a rough chronology, beginning with her best-known Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), moving through films such as La Pointe Courte (1954), Le Bonheur (1965) and Vagabond (1985), before changing tone to consider the artistic installations that she created in her later career. The completeness of this overlook amplifies just how far the filmmaker’s reach has travelled; from narrative film, to documentary, to modern art, there seems to be very little that she cannot perfect. Each piece is woven with Varda’s acute observational skills, driven by an intrinsic appreciation for humanity. 

At the birth of digital cinema – something which other filmmakers have struggled to embrace – Agnes Varda saw an opportunity. She speaks of how the digital camera allowed her to get closer to people without the hassle of a camera crew, and this segment of the film exemplifies Varda’s worldview: at the source of her art lies an adoration for her subjects, fictional or otherwise. “If we opened people, we’d find landscapes,” she muses, “If you opened me, you’d find beaches.”

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© Cine Tamaris 2018

This emotional depth is accompanied by an intelligent humour. Varda never takes herself too seriously, happy to engage in light self-deprecation, assured enough in her self that she may poke gentle fun at topics such as her age. One quick scene recounts how she dressed as a potato for an art show in 2011, the sudden appearance of the costume sparking peals of laughter from the audience of our screening. It is one thing to be able to produce incredible cinema, another to promote such passion for the medium – but it is Varda’s abundance of personality that sets her apart even from the elite. In a league of her own, this pioneer connects effortlessly with people of all backgrounds, whether through her art or through her person. 

‘Varda by Agnes’ is a self-portrait of an incredible artist. As her final film, the documentary ensures that Varda will be remembered exactly as she deserves to be. She will be remembered as a creative who responded to the digital era by recycling her old film reels into art pieces. She will be remembered as a proud feminist, a woman who championed her gender in a male-dominated movement and refused to allow her voice to be overlooked. But perhaps above all, she will be remembered as a filmmaker with a genuine love for the world – a love which will be memorialised in her work for the rest of time.

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