BY Kevin Ding

Varda by Agnès is a beautiful swan-song by a significant artist.

“In my films I always wanted people to see deeply. I don’t want to show things, but to give people the desire to see.” - Agnès Varda

Currently screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival, this is the final work by French filmmaker Agnès Varda. Simultaneously functioning as a memoir and a masterclass on cinema, Varda by Agnès is funny and uplifting. It is not melancholic or filled with the pain of old age.

Agnès Varda was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1928. She was first a still photographer, then a film director, and later a visual artist. Each of her works were boundary pushing and experimental. Varda was a feminist - and humanist - filmmaker who emerged during a time when women directors were nearly unheard of. She lived to the age of 90 and passed away in Paris earlier this year, only a month after the premiere of Varda by Agnès. The global film community mourned.

The film is a celebration of Varda’s life through her own eyes. Yet, each audience member can find something to relate to. Varda’s stories contain universal truths, advice for young directors, and her signature wit; constantly reminding us of the joy of simply being alive in this world. Varda describes the making of a movie as ‘cine-writing’. She lists in Varda by Agnès the three element of the process: inspiration, creation, sharing. Her inspiration often comes other people. 

People from all walks of life: neighbours, fishermen, farmers, homeless ‘gleaners’, Parisian couples, 1960s Hollywood hippies, the Black Panthers, fellow artists… the list goes on. These people fascinate Varda, and their stories inspire her films.

The act of creation is also elaborated on in this cinematic self-portrait. Varda explains the motivations behind decisions in some of her key works. “I wanted to film freedom and filth,” she says about her 1985 film Vagabond. “Tell the story of a young woman on the road… I wanted to camera to walk the roads with her. To do that, I used tracking shots. There are 13 in the film.” We then see an example of a tracking shot of Varda herself sitting on a dolly being pushed from right to left, while she faces the camera and explains the rhythm of Vagabond. It’s insightful and charming scenes like this that make Varda by Agnès spellbinding to watch. 

Varda’s photography, movies, and exhibition works have travelled all over the globe to countries such as Spain, Argentina and China. An amusing scene shows Chinese journalists listening to a Mandarin-dubbed version of a video from one of her exhibitions. Varda seems amused towards this, but she also stresses the importance of a cultural exchange such as this.

All in all, I was completely satisfied by Varda by Agnès. It’s a bittersweet au revoir and a fitting final chapter in a filmography filled with gems and surprises. Agnès Varda will not be forgotten.

Varda by Agnès is screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival’s Viva Varda retrospective. The festival ends on June 16th.

Judy and Punch

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