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Review: Varda by Agnès – “As much about sharing ideas and experiences as it is about artistic reflection”

The late, great Belgian-born, French filmmaker Agnès Varda presents one last window into her life and work. Varda by Agnès is a retrospective of her life in cinema, photography and visual art over six decades.

Just as Varda’s work recent work with the artist JR in 2017’s Faces Places sought to forge connections and tell the stories of quiet, often overlooked lives, Varda by Agnès is as much about sharing ideas and experiences as it is about artistic reflection. For fans of her work, it’s a joyous couple of hours in her company, with familiar images from her films and working practices, like windswept beaches, fields full of sunflowers and potatoes. If you know, you know.

But if you don’t, it’s not an arty ‘in’ joke. The images and their meaning pay off for fans and newbies alike. For the uninitiated, the documentary is a master class in practical filmmaking with heart: from the “film what you find” approach to blending documentary with fiction to weathering commercial flops with humour.

The film is made up of a series of erudite and funny lectures given by Varda in French, interviews with collaborators, archive footage and clips from her films in (more or less) chronological order, touching briefly on her early life as a photographer.

She regales us with stories of how she made Cleo 5-7, touches on autobiographical aspects of Documenteur, and apologises to Sandrinne Bonnaire for giving her a hard time on set during the filming of Vagabond.

Politics and place have been an influence throughout Agnès Varda’s dramas and documentaries, like the self-proclaimed “joyful feminism” she poured into the 1970s women’s liberation themes of One Sings, The Other Doesn’t and turning the camera on scavengers in rural France in The Gleaners and I.

There isn’t much in the way of personal biography in Varda by Agnès, although this was something she explored in 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès, which is a good companion piece.

However, one of the film’s most poignant moments is in her tribute to her late husband, the director Jaques Demy. It was a dying wish of Demy’s for her to tell his childhood story in the film Jacquot Du Nantes. His frailty during that period captured in a single, extreme close-up.

Varda’s films are present in her later visual artworks too, both literally and figuratively. Film stock from La Bonheur is used to construct a “cinema shack” filled with tall, willowy sunflowers. The name and image is a perfect metaphor for Agnès Varda’s relationship with her work, intellectual yet playful and making something from new discarded items.

Curious and creative until the end, it’s bitter-sweet that the film gets its UK release just a few months after her death at 90. And so to leave the last word with Varda: “Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love”.

Varda by Agnès is released on 19 July.

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