Agnès Varda has come to the Berlin International Film Festival to receive an award, and she’s brought along a new film, Varda by Agnès. The Berlinale Camera is a silver and titanium trophy that the festival gives to “film personalities or institutions to which it feels particularly indebted and wishes to express its thanks.” The utterly delightful new film is the ninety-year-old artist’s guide to her films, photography, and visual art.
The format of the two-hour primer produced by her daughter, Rosalie Varda, is deceptively simple. Right at the top, seated on the stage of a packed opera house in a director’s chair labeled “Agnès V.,” Varda announces that she’ll be addressing the three crucial phases of her artistic process: inspiration, creation, and sharing. But these are more watchwords to keep an ear out for than they are an organizing principle. The talk, pieced together from footage filmed at the various locations where she’s been giving it over the past few years and interspersed with freshly staged vignettes, moves along more or less chronologically. She freely admits that she didn’t really have much of an idea of what she was up to when she leaped into her first feature, La Pointe Courte (1956). But she was a fast learner. Varda discusses the structure of her second film, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), cleaved in half by the song Corinne Marchand sings with the late Michel Legrand, with Cléo moving from the angelic white she wears in the first half to the black dress she slips into before stepping out to the streets of Paris.
Varda has often looked back on her own life in her work, most directly in The Beaches of Agnès (2008), made, as she says, when turning eighty was “bearing down on me like a train.” The tone of the new film is a shade less whimsical, but there’s more of a sense in the new film that she’s come to terms with how she and her work will be remembered—and for which aspects of the work she wants to be remembered. She reunites with Sandrine Bonnaire out in a rainy field to look back with her on the making of Vagabond (1985). Bonnaire recalls throwing herself into the role of the willfully rootless rebel with such vigor and dedication that blisters formed on her hands. Varda shrugged off the blisters at the time, but now says she’d lick them in gratitude. In one of the most moving moments of Varda by Agnès, the director notes that she made Jacquot de Nantes (1991) not as a tribute to Jacques Demy but as a way to spend as much time with her husband as possible during his final days.
Moving into the mid-1990s, Varda recalls being asked to conceive a project, a feature film, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the invention of cinema. One Hundred and One Nights (1995) stars Michel Piccoli as Simon Cinéma, a centenarian cinephile who hires a film student to tell him the stories of the movies he’s beginning to forget. The supporting cast is a roll call of top European and American stars of the time, including Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Clint Eastwood, Gérard Depardieu, Hanna Schygulla, and on, and on. As Varda shows us behind-the-scenes footage shot on the lively set, she tells us that she was particularly impressed with the preparation that Robert De Niro put into his single scene with Catherine Deneuve. He was available for one day, and so days before he flew over, he began to get up at four in the morning so that his body would be already be on the European clock when he arrived. As the crew set up the shots, De Niro learned the lines he was to deliver in French—phonetically.
As Varda then reminds us that the film was a flop at the box office and that it was the last feature she shot on 35 mm, Varda by Agnès fades to black for the first and only time. It’s a new era when the lights come up again, the age of the digital technology that Varda eagerly embraced for its colorfully pixelled aesthetic. In the new century, she’s been making documentaries such as The Gleaners and I (2000) or Faces Places (2017), a collaboration with the artist JR. It’s in this second section, too, that Varda revisits her work as an outstanding photographer both before she ever picked up a movie camera and ever since; and she talks us through the creation of the many art installations hosted by prestigious institutions around the world.
Variety’s Guy Lodge suggests that Varda by Agnès “effectively amounts to a cinematic victory lap” and responds to whispers that this will be her last film with “chin up: we’ve heard that song before.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds that Varda’s “energy seems undimmed, yet quite controlled and at ease, channelled into a tone of calm and beguiling wisdom: witty, equable, gentle.” For the Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Dalton, she’s “such an engaging presence on screen—wry and humane, balancing sly social commentary with a playfully child-like attitude—that even a minor autumnal work like this is still a heart-warming mood-lifter.”
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.