We start with the credits which usually run at the end of a film. Eventually we enter an opera house. Sped up film shows the audience arrive. The stage is largely empty apart from a director’s chair with “Agnès V” chalked on the back. This is soon to be filled by the great Agnès Varda, the Belgian-French film director who sadly died last year at the age of 90. Short, squat, in a pudding bowl haircut, Varda is, as ever, dressed from head to toe in purple and is completely compelling.
This is Varda’s final film, made not long before her death. It gives her the opportunity to walk us through her career, which started photographing stars like Salvador Dali, Eugene Ionescu and Fidel Castro. Towards the end of her life, she also spent several years as a visual artist. And then, of course, there were her many films.
She talks us through the films she made in the 1960s and 1970s from the documentary about the Black Panthers to her “feminist films” which were part of the fight for the legalisation of contraception and abortion in Catholic France. Unlike some analysts, who prefer to separate the fight for the rights of women and black people, she sees them as being inseparable – indeed she lauds the Panthers as being a feminist organisation.
Not all her films are es explicitly political. In Cleo from 5 to 7, she shows 90 minutes of a woman’s life. She explains that the location and subject matter were chosen partly from financial necessity – if you just film an hour and half of life in Paris, you don’t have to pay extra for travel and hotels.
Later she had the budget and reputation to attract actors like Catherine Deneuve and Robert de Niro for One Hundred and One Nights, the film she made for the 100th anniversary of cinema. She explains how de Niro learned French phonetically for the film, and excerpts shown give us an idea why the film was not a box office success.
There were not many other female film directors (there still aren’t), particularly not older women, and yet Varda was no stranger to innovation. At the turn of the century, she embraced digital cameras, which she argues made it easier to make documentaries as she could move unobtrusively among people who felt uncomfortable being filmed. You get the feeling that Varda’s impish humility also helped.
Occasionally Varda interviews the people who collaborated with her as actors or cinematographers. Some of these interviews take place on stage, others outside. In one – with the actor Sandrine Bonnaire – the two women huddle under umbrellas in the driving rain. But while many provide interesting interviewees, none is able to steal the spotlight from her.
Varda’s reminiscences meander and don’t always follow strict chronology (or, as she misspeaks, criminology) but the journey is more interesting than the destination and she is never less than fascinating.
At times, Varda tell us about her philosophy of film making, based on the three ideas of inspiration, creation, and sharing. Inspiration is your reason for making the film, creation is how you make it, and sharing is how you pass it onto an audience. I must confess, I didn’t quite get the subtleties of what she is saying here, but again the interest lies in the telling of the tale, not on exactly what is being said.
Throughout, there is no diva-ness to Varda, no Big Director haughtiness. You get the feeling that she is genuinely interested in the subject of her films, such as the people foraging in garbage dumps for food because they have been left behind by society. She also speaks excitedly with the kids visiting the installation about her late cat’s grave. At one stage, she says “nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love; if you find them extraordinary, as I did”, and you really believe her.
It is true that she makes occasional appearances as herself in the films, but there is no sense of vanity, maybe because she is aware that she looks a bit strange – the exact opposite of a preening film star. In one scene, we see her giving out leaflets for her documentary about potato farming while dressed as a potato. In another interview she talks about her films while her cat plays mischievously in the foreground.
The film ends with Varda sitting on a beach surrounded by artificial seabirds, explaining the necessity of sometimes reflecting on things in solitude. She is still, of course, in the director’s chair with her name on the back. The film fades into blurriness. There is no need to show the credits again.
Varda by Agnès acts as a palate cleanser, which makes you want to see the full films of which we have seen small snippets. Like most people outside either France or the closed world of film cognoscenti, I have seen way too few. They rarely played Varda films at the Bradford Odeon, or even at the local Art House cinema. But it has motivated me to try to seek them out.