Agnès Varda Looks Back on Life and Art in Her Newly Released Swan Song

On Film / In Theaters — Nov 22, 2019

Earlier this year, with the death of Agnès Varda, world cinema lost one of its most slyly iconoclastic directors and one of its most deeply beloved personalities. In a career defined by her restless experimentation with film form, Varda was an inveterate tinkerer with storytelling conventions, as in French New Wave–defining films such as Cléo from 5 to 7, as well as a first-person documentarian with an incisive eye and a delightfully wry screen presence of her own. These latter qualities are on ample display in the filmmaker’s bittersweet final feature, Varda by Agnès, opening today at New York’s Film Forum and Film at Lincoln Center (and soon to expand to select cities nationwide), courtesy of Janus Films. Varda by Agnès finds its ninety-year-old maker and subject looking back on the creative practice that she developed—and the work she created—over the course of a lifetime. The result is an illuminating, characteristically idiosyncratic summation of an oeuvre that includes not only innovations in the cinematic medium but also breathtaking still-photography and installation work. 

Starting next month, moviegoers will have yet another chance to celebrate Varda’s body of work, as Lincoln Center plays host to a career retrospective, also courtesy of Janus, which will then be taking the program on the road throughout 2020. In the meantime, though, take a look at some of the critical praise for Varda by Agnès, before seeing the singular film for yourself.

  • Giving Varda by Agnès a Critic’s Pick seal of approval in the New York Times, A. O. Scott writes that the film, in which the ever-appealing Varda “intersperses clips from her back catalog with reminiscences and reflections on life and art,” “is a perfect introduction and a lovely valediction . . . She helps you think about her art, which in turn helps you think about everything else.”
  • The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, meanwhile, pays tribute to the film as a “work of multilayered self-portraiture” that gradually builds, as it goes, into a kind of meditative magnificence: “The result is a grand, warmhearted testament to her lifetime of creative connections, her art of self-transformation, and her relentless transformation of the art of cinema itself.”
  • Sierra Pettengill, in her review for Film Comment, notes how Varda’s final movie reveals her remarkable collaborative generosity, her commitment to filmmaking “as collectivist pursuit.” “Varda by Agnès itself is a generous gift, a master class that’s both technically fascinating and artistically inspiring; her dedication to the shared experience is as baked into her formal DNA as it is into her political conscience.”
  • Writing for Salon, Gary M. Kramer focuses in on the still photographs by Varda seen in the film: “Around the film’s midpoint, Varda interrupts her monologue for a ‘prelude’ to show some of the photographs she took early in her career, before she became a filmmaker. The pictures are stunning; her eye frames and her lens captures people in ways that reveal both them and Varda.”
  • For his Deadline feature on the film, Matthew Carey talked with Rosalie Varda, the filmmaker’s daughter, also the producer of Varda by Agnès. “To be very honest, she really did [the film] in a way because I really a little bit forced her nicely,” Rosalie told Carey. “She would say, ‘Oh, talking about my films, it’s going to be boring.’ And I said, ‘Let’s try . . . There will be documentaries on your body of work after your death. But it’s really interesting that you could speak about your films yourself because it will give the audience some clues, little clues . . . helping the audience to understand a little bit more who you are and how you work.”