There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love director Agnès Varda and those who don’t yet know her work.
While some French cinema can feel remote and inaccessible, testing whether you’re erudite enough to understand it, Varda’s films make a point of delighting in the everyday; over a decades-long career, all kinds of people drew her attention, from Black Panthers to French-countryside scavengers and Los Angeles–based mural painters, and she devoted herself to making sure their stories captivated her viewers too.
Varda died in March, but her final documentary, Varda by Agnès, now in theaters, makes her substantial body of work feel as vital as ever. Structured as a series of charmingly named “chats” with student audiences, interspersed with clips from her films, Varda’s documentary makes it plain how deeply future generations of directors will be indebted to her work.
Like fellow director Nora Ephron, Varda is unabashed about career flops, freely admitting that her 1995 salute to cinema, One Hundred and One Nights, didn’t exactly take the box office by storm.
More interesting, though, are Varda’s less grandiose projects, the ones that happened because of her inexhaustible interest in the world around her. On a trip to Belgium to film her childhood home, Varda met a couple who collected model trains and abruptly changed the subject of her film to them instead. Showing the audience clips of the couple proudly displaying their collection, she says: “That’s more interesting than my old curtains.”
That said, Varda was unafraid to turn the camera on herself when she knew she had a story to tell; toward the end of her life, she saw aging as another frontier to be explored cinematically, collaborating with the artist JR to turn her increasing vision problems into art with their 2017 collaboration, Faces Places.
Varda’s whole life is in Varda by Agnès, in capsule form—it spans her marriage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg director Jacques Demy, her days filming hippies in Los Angeles, and her lifelong affinity for beaches—but the documentary never feels exhaustive or self-satisfied. That makes sense, since Varda was, after all, the woman who donned a giant potato costume to promote a film and who said of her honorary Oscar, “I’m flattered but not that much.” It’s evident in every frame of Varda by Agnès that throughout her long life she never lost that sense of humor.
The documentary’s final scene—in which Varda and JR sit on a beach, laughing as they’re pelted by a sandstorm—is a bittersweet reminder of Varda’s ability to chronicle life as it came at her, resisting the urge to over-script or micromanage. Varda isn’t the first artist to use her own aging as material, but what’s truly spellbinding about Varda by Agnès is the ease with which it embraces change. Varda says she made the film “not to stop time but to accompany time,” and in that mind-set she kept evolving as an artist—all the way to the end.