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Film Review: ‘Varda by Agnès’

Though it's stylistically staid by her standards, Agnès Varda's blend of memoir and cinematic TED talk will delight her recently expanded fanbase.

Director:
Agnès Varda
With:
Agnès Varda

1 hour 55 minutes

Something curious happened to Agnès Varda with her last film, the freewheeling, personality-driven road doc “Faces Places”: at the age of 88, sixty-odd years and twenty-odd films into her career, she suddenly and quite unexpectedly became a meme. A wave of critics that had never previously demonstrated much interest in Varda’s work took to the new film at Cannes, the Academy suddenly lavished her with a nomination and an honorary Oscar after decades of looking the other way, and the director’s wry, twinkly presence and two-tone Miyazaki-witch bob (or failing that, a cutely promoted cardboard facsimile) became ubiquitous on the festival and publicity circuits — inspiring a surfeit of adoring tributes, T-shirts and Twitter threads in their wake. Varda acquired a rare celebrity status for an auteur: heading into her tenth decade, it seemed the woman was better known than her own work.

How exactly do you follow that up, given that “Faces Places” (with all respect to its folksy, minor-key charms) was never meant to be a watershed work? Quite easily, it turns out: maximizing the director’s distinctive personal brand from the title downwards, the mellow, reflective “Varda by Agnès” effectively amounts to a cinematic victory lap. A potted overview of Varda’s career that, notwithstanding one or two wily structural tricks, mostly takes the form of a filmed masterclass, it’s a cannily timed recap for the multitude of jeannie-come-latelies to her art, festooned as it is with clips and commentary on key works from “Cléo from 5 to 7” to “Vagabond” to “The Gleaners and I.” (Word is that it’s her last film, but chin up: we’ve heard that song before.)

For longtime Varda fans, this Berlinale premiere is unlikely to be as revelatory an experience, though they’ll still feast on the general puckishness of her persona. That, combined with the credited involvement of such backers as Eva Longoria, Ava DuVernay and the Museum of Modern Art, makes this in-conversation doc a surefire bet for wide arthouse distribution following its festival run; it’ll transfer easily to television and streaming platforms, too, losing little formal scope in the process.

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This is not, of course, Varda’s first docu-memoir. Initially intended to be her retirement film — little did she, or we, know what was coming — 2008’s wistful “The Beaches of Agnès” took a more personal, eccentric ramble through her past, focusing as much on life as on work. “Varda by Agnès” shares enough common threads with that film, not least its culminating shoreline metaphor, to render it a companion piece rather than an idle rehash. Still, it’s a simpler work, linear if not quite chronological, that talks through her output one professional chapter at a time. Even when it departs from direct recordings of her recent lecture tour, the result plays in stretches like a well-assembled supercut of DVD director commentaries.

Similarly straightforward is the driving artistic philosophy that Varda, impish as ever at 90, expounds here. The film opens on Varda, seated in her signature branded director’s chair, holding court in a theater filled with besotted young film buffs and scholars: “There might be children of paradise up there,” she beams, looking up to the cheap seats. Filmmaking, she repeatedly explains, comes down to three processes: inspiration, creation, and sharing. It’s the last of those that dominates here: Varda’s greatest films are generously and colorfully excerpted throughout, to whet the appetites of those who have never encountered “Cléo’s” still-zingy real-time realism, or the deceptively poppy, paintbox-bright feminism of “Le Bonheur.” (Fair play to Varda for not gliding past her duds, either: one of the film’s most amusing archival passages centers on Robert De Niro and Catherine Deneuve filming 1994’s all-star misfire “One Hundred and One Nights.”)

In the film’s second hour, the emphasis shifts to Varda’s work as a visual and installation artist: harder to sell on screen than her bejeweled films, maybe, though likelier to contain fresh insights for the initiated. A sweetly whimsical interlude covers the construction of a seashell-spangled grave for Varda’s late cat Zgougou, relocated to a Parisian museum site where it becomes an object of fascination to visiting schoolchildren — themselves bemused and inspired by the peculiar old lady’s anything-goes approach to the creation and consumption of art. As in “Faces Places,” the selfie comes in for further down-with-the-kids endorsement as an artform; indeed, with that film still so fresh in the memory, an extended revisit late in the film seems a little redundant.

That only “Vagabond” star Sandrine Bonnaire returns for a latter-day interview with Varda — staged, in typically quirky fashion, on a dolly track in the rain — suggests this has all been a bit hastily assembled. Bonnaire affectionately chides her now-sheepish director for brusquely forcing her to acquire suitably gritty hand blisters; the film would benefit from more past collaborators’ anecdotes and dedications in this vein, but surely such a project, whether made by her or someone else, will come. It’s hardly surprising, however, that Varda does almost all the talking in what finally amounts to a shuffling who-me celebration of her unlikely elevation to star status. Slight as a Varda film, but shot through with its maker’s characteristic pluck and whimsy, “Varda by Agnès” gives her newly recruited fans everything they’ve come to see.

Film Review: 'Varda by Agnès'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (noncompeting), Feb. 13, 2019. Running time: 115 MIN. (Original titles: "Varda par Agnès")

Production: (Documentary — France) A Ciné Tamaris, Arte France presentation in co-production with HBB26, Scarlett Production, MK2 Films. (International sales: MK2 Films, Paris.) Producer: Rosalie Varda.

Crew: Director, writer: Agnès Varda. Camera (color): François Décréau, Claire Duguet, Julia Fabry. Editors: Varda, Nicolas Longinotti.

With: Agnès Varda

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