Agnès Varda’s film “Varda by Agnès,” which is being released posthumously, on Friday, (she died in March, at the age of ninety) is her retrospective of her own career, punctuated by deep dives into her personal life and newly filmed sidebars of interviews and self-displaying theatrics. Yet it’s more than just Varda’s last movie; it’s the last scene of her last act, the capper to a twenty-year span of work that includes some of her most original and significant films. At the same time, this period in her career and her life coincides with a shift in the history of cinema that she helped to define and that she responded to with a practical inspiration that is a mark of her historic art. That very story is one that she tells in “Varda by Agnès.”
Varda relies on a pair of public discussions to structure the overview of her career. The first hour leaps around, juxtaposing her films from different decades and circumstances by way of her insightful thematic connections, and ends at a crucial waypoint in her life: her last dramatic feature, which she made in the mid-nineteen-nineties. The movie, “One Hundred and One Nights,” was an elaborate bit of whimsy that meshed with a mighty fit of commemoration then current in France: the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the cinema, dated from the 1895 films by the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière. Varda’s film is a cinematic tale of Scheherazade, centered on a centenarian named Simon Cinema (Michel Piccoli) who struggles to recall the history of cinema and who hires a young woman to help jog his memory, while young filmmakers scheme to make a movie with his money.
“One Hundred and One Nights” included staged cameos with stars (such as Catherine Deneuve, Robert De Niro, and Jeanne Moreau) playing fantasy versions of themselves. It was expensive to make and a commercial disaster. (It’s also not one of Varda’s better films; despite its inspired idea, the results are, for the most part, both heavy-handed and slight.) She takes its failure—as well as its place at the end of her own cinematic twentieth century—as the hinge of the narrative self-portrait in “Varda by Agnès.” After an interlude that plunges back to her pre-movie days, around 1950, when Varda was a still photographer (an artist who travelled around casually, alone or with friends, working hands-on with lightweight equipment), she pushes ahead to the twenty-first century, to her new circumstances, and to its new equipment, small digital video cameras, which she used for her next film, “The Gleaners and I.” Harking back to her youth, she moved around France on her own and videotaped people who gleaned, who gathered unsold or thrown-away food from markets and farms.
She also, as part of the process, videotaped herself, and made her own voyage, her own explorations, her own life an integral part of “The Gleaners and I.” That movie inaugurated the final period of her work—which, as she details in “Varda by Agnès,” leaped off the screen and into museums, art galleries, and other public spaces. That period is, in effect, the first-person period, in which she herself, onscreen, in action and in gesture, became the center and the prime subject of her own work. The instant identification of Varda with the image of Varda dates from “The Gleaners and I,” which, as much as it’s a response to the immediate circumstances of her career and the pleasure of the discovery of new equipment, is also a response to the changing circumstances of the cinema at large.
Something was coming to an end—something like the classical cinema and its place in both the marketplace and culture over all—and Varda wasn’t alone in discerning and responding artistically to that long goodbye. In a new interview in last month’s Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard (who’s eighty-eight) said that his 1996 film “For Ever Mozart” was his “last classical film” and added, regarding his next film, “In Praise of Love,” from 2001,“I put a great deal of time . . . into figuring out what I could do.” Éric Rohmer, born in 1920, made his last contemporary film in 1998, and, in the new century, only made films on history and historical fantasy.
Even the long-standing mode of movie distribution was at a crossroads. Developments in the United States were forerunners: many of the best international films of the nineties went undistributed here (and remain so). Movie theatres in France were closing, and movies being released often had very short runs. Long before streaming threatened to crowd out theatrical viewing, DVDs and television were crowding and diminishing the cinema. The rise of the Internet then changed both marketing and, subtly but decisively, the very recognition of movies. As celebrity became amplified, so did personalities—as movies became harder to sell, their artists became the selling points. With independent productions, the names and identities of filmmakers have become, in effect, the brands on the market—and many of the best filmmakers of the time have taken artistic advantage of these changed circumstances to become, in their art, even more uninhibitedly themselves.
In Varda’s case, she doubled down on those new possibilities, by making movies that are both more radically her own in style and in substance, and that, with her face, her voice, her personas foregrounded, are all the more inextricably identifiable with herself. The feature that Varda made next, “The Beaches of Agnès,” is one of the greatest works of cinematic self-portraiture and self-exploration, while at the same time broaching (as she does in this new film) her inseparable connection with the history of her time and the people in her life. Her her 2017 film “Faces Places” does the same. Meanwhile, Varda’s gallery and museum work from the past two decades combines her personal and professional lives, reflecting the fragile glory of the cinema itself, her family life (she was married to the director Jacques Demy, who died, of AIDS, in 1990), and her ardent and intimate documentary engagement. She made herself, in her instantly identifiable presence, the emblem not of the cinema’s past but of the open and untapped possibilities of its future. Her concluding retrospective film is a movie of a second youth—her own and the cinema’s.