‘Varda by Agnès’: a Revolutionary Retrospective

Agnès Varda’s posthumous swan song is an inspirational love letter to the cinematic arts.


Primarily set in an opera house, “Varda by Agnès,” is the renowned documentarian’s posthumous film that beautifully accounts – and transcends – her life and her career. (Photo Courtesy of Mk2 Films)

By Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer, Contributing Writer

Whether you remember her as a fierce documentarian, French New Wave pioneer, fervid feminist, installation-piece wizard or potato-lover, there’s no doubt AgnèsmVarda has etched herself into our minds as one of the most loving creatives of this day-and-age. For those who are unfamiliar with the famed queen of the French New Wave, her films, from 1961’s “Cléo from 5 to 7” to 2017’s “Faces Places,” have most assuredly inspired their favorite filmmakers. “Varda by Agnès,” the last film she worked on before her death earlier this year, is a zig-zagging paean that eulogizes every facet of her life and career — political, personal and photographic. Primarily set in an opera house where Varda conducts a meandering retrospective on her career before a crowd of young cinephiles, “Varda by Agnès” simultaneously works as a closing signature for longtime fans and an invitation for new viewers to get invested in her life and art.

Seeing as Varda conducts the entire retrospective bound almost motionlessly to a chair, she does a great job escaping the prosaic trappings of what could feel like a Keynote presentation displaying footage from her past. The film constantly reinvents itself, splicing in varied and inventive recreations of moments in her life. Varda gets to give the last word on her career, marking her oeuvre with a stamp that reifies its meaning. But is it truly the end of her artistry?

The film highlights time and time again her avid love for recycling and repurposing art. With this in mind, the viewer can’t help but wonder whether her final film, a self-portrait that collages her life into a two-hour narrative, is the definitive final entry in her career or a scrapheap of genius that’s meant to be recycled by future artists down the road. When a child exclaims, “It was a happy cemetery with fun colors” upon emerging from the video-sepulcher Varda erected for her once-beloved cat, you can’t help but wonder how that experience will inform the kid’s affinity for artistic expression in their own future. At one point, when she stares into the audience and blurts out “I’m 90 and I don’t care,” it’s as though she’s commanding the slew of young cinephiles before her to also throw their arms up and respond, “We’re 20 and we don’t care, let’s go make something!”

Whether this is Varda signing off or subtly trying to make a final wave in the art world, “Varda by Agnès” is a wonderful piece of closure for an artist who evaded finality for as long as she could.

A version of this article appears in the Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, print edition. Email Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer at [email protected]