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.
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.
On Tuesday evening every audience member of the sold out NFT1 screen at the BFI Southbank rose to give 90-year-old Agnès Varda a standing ovation. With astonishing humility, she responded with “I’m so glad there are so many of you. I’m impressed that I’m just coming saying things and you come to listen to me.”
For decades Agnès Varda has been confined to the margins of film history while her French New Wave contemporaries like Godard and Truffaut appear on every film studies syllabus. No more. In the past year, Faces Places screened at Cannes, she received an honorary Academy Award, protested the lack of female directors represented at Cannes, and now is celebrated by a retrospective at the BFI.
Most of the films I’ve covered on this site thus far have been very dark and gritty critically acclaimed dramas, or completely terrible and underwhelming misfires. Because of this, it may seem like I only enjoy depressing and cynical things. This is not true. In reality, I’m a giant softie.
One minute I’ll be watching a really disturbing and sad episode of Black Mirror, and the next I won’t shut up about how fantastic Paddington 2 is. However, as much as I love Paddington 2, the film that has made me the happiest this year is Faces Places. This is a new documentary from the famous French street artist JR, and the very famous French filmmaker Agnes Varda, who was the only woman making films in the French new wave. She and JR seem like very different people at first, but they end up being the perfect people to helm this film.