NYFF Review: Varda by Agnès

Rating: 3.5/4

Doesn’t it warm the heart to see Agnès Varda on screen again? The iconic New Wave filmmaker—known for seminal works like Cleo 5 to 7 and Vagabond—was identifiable not just by her two-tone bob haircut, but by her immense talent. Varda by Agnès, a tour through her career, hinges upon her central theme: time. The Belgian auteur shares her personal relationship with time in front of a sold-out opera house, presenting her works in non-linear fashion, jumping through memories pertaining to her creative decisions and friends at what seems like a whim—but like anything from her is thoughtfully executed.

Varda by Agnès is a showcase of her incredible depth of expertise held in multiple art forms: film, photography, and public installations. In one moment she’s discussing takeaways with a group of children who’ve just exited one of exhibits, the next she’s recounting when she filmed the groundbreaking Black Panthers (1968). The decades veer in a rapid stream from her mind, but never overwhelm. Moreover, Varda was a figure who pushed herself and her art beyond the cliche. When handheld digital cameras became commonplace, she employed them to make Gleaners and I (2000). When she filmed Vagabond (1985) she used dolly tracking shots moving right-to-left instead of left-to-right (running opposite of how we read). And she was always on the lookout for new collaborators, such as the younger JR in Faces Places (2017).

In another person’s hands, as a conventional look down memory lane, Varda by Agnès would bore. But her lust for life and impish sense of humor jumps from the screen in every self-deprecating joke and telling observation about her career, like her self-lampooning of her less than successful A Hundred and One Nights (1994).

But to return to the overall theme of time, Varda by Agnès demonstrates the ways she crafted her filmmaking to converse with the unfeeling foe. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), plays upon how we perceive the passage of time differently depending upon the moment. The World of Jacques Demy, an eulogy to her late husband, infuses clips of his films with autobiographical reenactments and real-life footage filmed by Varda herself, in a non-linear documentary. When Demy quips that she’s trying to stop time, the sage auteur responds, “not to stop time, but to accompany time.” Often she made poignant observations about her wrinkled hands and declining eye sight, and took great interest in reusing and recycling potatoes and other castaway items. Varda throughout her life and art accompanied time like an old friend, and we admire her career as if she were ours too during the enriching Varda by Agnès .

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