Agnès Varda was a film director who after starting out in photography decided to branch out into the world of cinema and became the foremost female director of the French New Wave with such revered hits as Cléo from 5 to 7 and Le Bonheur. Now in her 90th year, she has been touring the globe with her illustrated lecture where she shows clips of her work and relates anecdotes of her life and her outlook on them, from the perspective that the wisdom of age has given her. She believes filmmaking takes the form of three distinct matters: first, inspiration, getting the ideas that will prompt you into action. Second, creation, the actual process of making the film, and once it is edited and ready, third, sharing, allowing others to see what you have made, otherwise, what is the point?
This would be the final piece directed by Varda, who had before her death in March of 2019 attained not simply a national treasure status, but an international one as well; she was not a huge celebrity, but her obvious humanity and good humour, as well as an air of mystery that despite her openness about her endeavours, she kept quite a bit to herself which would draw those who discovered her oeuvre down the decades to return to her again and again. This was essentially a television clip show, liberally dosed with footage from her long career, that was released into cinemas outside of France, such was the interest in the great director, photographer and artist, and as she had passed away around the same time that it was released, that interest only increased, which was all to the good.
Even if you did not speak French, it was a pleasure to hear Varda hold forth on various subjects and matters pertaining to her life, she remained a compelling and even whimsical presence as you might have imagined from her films - well, some of her films. She says her most famous film remains her breakthrough, Cléo, but her 1985 effort Vagabond may have eclipsed it, a stark and unforgiving portrait of a teenage runaway unfolding in flashback after the film opens with the discovery of the girl's dead body. Was this a different side to Varda that she did not often entertain elsewhere? We get a brief interview with the star Sandrine Bonnaire, who recalls the director was cold towards her in a manner that seems uncharacteristic from the representation as a caring and motherly artistic force.
Yet look at Vagabond closer and you see that is all there in the film, and we are being told about the title character to make us care about someone at a heavy disadvantage in society, and when the now-nonagenarian talent includes footage of the currently poverty-stricken and homeless, she has lost none of her compassion. Therefore it was possible to make out some of her personality, quite a bit of it in fact, as the pieces of an jigsaw puzzle that was her filmography fell into place, which contributed to a sense of honesty that accumulated as the documentary went on. We saw her sole dabbling in Hollywood Lions Love, dismissed at the time as was her husband Jacques Demy's Model Shop but in retrospect an intriguing foreigner's take on America as these things often were, and her late on triumph Faces Places which brings this documentary to a close, the last image of Varda obscured by a sandstorm on one of her beloved beaches. There was so much to her rich existence that it was indicative you came away feeling as if there was more to know - and that you wanted to watch her films, which was as it should be.
[Released on Blu-ray and DVD by the BFI, the features are as follows:
Agnés Varda in Conversation (2018, 83 mins): the legendary director gives an illustrated talk about her career to an audience at BFI Southbank. Recorded on 10th July 2018
Agnés 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
Agnés 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
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with new writing by So Mayer and Isabel Stevens, a contemporary review by Catherine Wheatley, recollections of Agnès Varda by composer Joanna Bruzdowicz, and filmmakers Mia Hansen-LØve, Heddy Honigmann and Marc Isaacs and full film credits.]