It’s the cut that does it. There are welled emotions enough in watching the last film by Agnès Varda, in knowing she knew it was to be so, in seeing her summate a life’s service to cinema from a vantage point of after its end. “It’s a filmmaker’s worst nightmare,” she tells us of an empty cinema, of sharing your work only to have nobody watch it. She says it from a director’s chair planted on one of her beloved beaches, her old wizened eyes meeting the camera’s—meeting ours. And then she cuts, to a matched shot of her, back now turned to us, facing out over just such an empty cinema. It’s a rare moment of fear in the oeuvre of an artist known as intrepid; if Varda’s career pointed to a creator content to exist on the fringes, here’s a startling suggestion of how close to marginal that might have made her feel.
Film schools and the theorists they thrive on like to talk about editing as the ontological essence of the cinema, the distinguishing difference of this seventh art. But they haven’t always liked to talk about Agnès Varda, and how her work, from the associative extremities of Diary of a Pregnant Woman to the adept interweaving of Jacquot de Nantes to that searing single cut that clarifies her final new film, evidenced this as well as any other. Many great directors develop a distinct sense of their place in the canon; it would be bitterly ironic for perhaps the greatest of them all to go out in acknowledgement of her place outside it, if not for the fact nothing about Varda ever seemed bitter at all.
She was witty and warm, though not the cute caricature internet memes meant to make of her; for all their efforts, she retained remarkable control of her own image and persona, and fostered it to the end. And so we are left with Varda par Agnès, a skipped-middleman cinema session whose directness and accessibility as a film school all of its own is but one amongst the multitude of movies it manages to be. Pairing modesty and mastery with customary concision, Varda’s technical tour of her setups uses the comprehensive archival rights she amassed to rightly reposition her reputation from the French New Wave’s grandmother to its true enfant terrible, from the early aesthetic experimentation of La Pointe Courte and Cléo from 5 to 7 to the counter-cultural rallying cries of Black Panthers and One Sings, the Other Doesn’t and far further beyond. Much more than just a guide to how she’d like to be remembered, it is a generous gift of those memories themselves.
What extraordinary breadth of them there is, bound by the endless intimacies of emotion and curious concern for those on the edge that ran through six decades of her cinema like the sunlight that sears through Le Bonheur. These pervasive tendencies shine through, too, in her ripe revisitations of early works; she has Vagabond’s Sandrine Bonnaire join her, in one of the movie’s many inherently funny shots—her sense of visual comedy never faded since Cléo’s slapstick silent film-within-a-film—to recall how she “wanted to film freedom and filth”. In Vagabond she pushed to the furthest her efforts to understand and elucidate the essence of human dignity and the inconceivable ugliness of its loss. She strove to show the inviolable worth of every stray soul on the street.
She celebrated life, and she mourned it, and she made us see how valuable it is. She returns again here, as in many films previously, to the death of Jacques Demy, replays at length the extreme intimate close-ups in Jacqout de Nantes of his withering flesh and greyed hair, sadly says in voiceover how she wanted the camera to get as close to him as possible, while it still could. And she reveals, in reviving this footage, how so doing left some of him there on the screen, for her and for us. Later, describing recent success as a visual artist, she outlines an installation, Widows of Noirmoutier, of sixteen seats linked to sixteen screens, each listening via headphones to tales of love and loss—private grief in public spaces. To the last, here, her latent layers of meaning belie the complexity of structure that made her body of work such a richly complex dialogue through years past, and yet to come.
“I know the end is near,” she told us twenty years ago in The Gleaners and I as she turned her new digital camera inward on her own spotted hands and thinning hair. Varda par Agnès is the climactic coda to this late career lease of life, and a reminder of how lucky we were it lasted so long. Through stray shorts like her Homage to Zgouzgou to the self-assessing feature docs The Beaches of Agnès and Faces Places, she insatiably unpacked encroaching mortality as an individual and artist. With these final films, she took us all by the hand and guided us to the end she felt growing ever nearer. She sat us down in the cinema to say goodbye. And she left some of herself there on the screen. For her, and for us.