When director Agnès Varda came out with her 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary Faces Places, co-directed with the artist JR, many people assumed it would be her final film. In her late 80s at that point, her eyesight was failing—if not her unquenchable curiosity.
But in fact she would complete one more film before her death in March at age 90. Varda by Agnès, the capstone to a remarkable career in cinema, plays at AFI Fest in Los Angeles November 21. The next day it opens in theaters in New York before expanding nationwide.
“It’s a way of saying goodbye,” Varda explained at the film’s world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February, a month before her passing. “I have to prepare myself to say goodbye and to go away. It’s fine.”
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The film is built around talks Varda gave late in her career about her work. Rosalie Varda, the director’s daughter and the film’s producer, says it took some convincing to get her mother to do the documentary.
“To be very honest, she really did it in a way because I really a little bit forced her nicely,” Rosalie tells Deadline. “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.”
The elder Varda eventually threw herself into the project with characteristic energy and good humor, directing, shooting, writing and co-editing the film. In it she reflects on what she considers the two parts of her career in fiction and nonfiction film, beginning with “analog” films of the 20th century including her debut, La Pointe Courte in 1955 and Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) which established her as a leader of the French New Wave.
“The second part starts in the 21st century,” Varda wrote in a commentary, “when the small digital cameras changed my approach to documentaries, from The Gleaners & I in 2000 to Faces Places.”
Varda by Agnès also explores her work in fine arts creating “installations, atypical triptychs” and “shacks of cinema” made out of strips of celluloid from her films. And it sheds light on a neglected phase of her career, Varda’s stunning early work as a photographer in which she captured images of Fidel Castro, a young Catherine Deneuve and more quotidian scenes in black and white.
“She started photography in 1949 and she stopped in ’68, ’69,” Rosalie comments. “She was invited by Fidel Castro to Cuba in ’62. She did a lot of things [in photography] that people don’t really know and I would really like that it’s shown now. And that’s why in the film we see a little bit, but it’s an appetizer…I really hope we are going to be able to do an exhibition in the States.”
There are glimpses throughout Varda by Agnès of what made Varda so unique as an artist and a person—a childlike imagination, a lightness and joy about her creativity, an appreciation for the beauty all around us, even to be found in unlikely places, like a field of discarded potatoes (she created an art installation she called ‘Patatutopia’ assembling roomfuls of the tubers, and could see something profound in potatoes as they aged, shriveled and germinated).
Above all she was an observer, empathetic and engaged, of those around her.
“I’m very fascinated by people, people in the street, people in my street. Wherever I travel or wherever I work, I really have a feeling that it’s interesting to approach people,” the filmmaker commented at the Berlinale. “But mostly the ones on the side, the [overlooked] people…I think so many ‘important’ people have light on them and photo and film, advertising, so I like the feeling that other people, simple people, deserve to be looked at very carefully.”
At that press conference for Varda by Agnès in Berlin she also said of herself, “What saved me is that I remained curious. And if you’re curious you always have something to watch, to discover…It’s always interesting to have ideas, and daydream. The imagination is something that fulfilled my life…Every day I think I could do something.”
Rosalie Varda worked closely with her mother for the last 10 years of her life, and produced Faces Places (for which she shared an Oscar nomination with directors Agnès Varda and JR). She tells Deadline she misses her mother, but accepts her passing.
“She was 90 years old. She had a beautiful life. She worked really hard, she passed away in her house with her family,” she notes. “It’s sad. We are very sad. I lose my mother, the world loses an artist, but we have to be reasonable. She had such a beautiful life, we’re in peace with this.”
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