Varda by Jon – Part 1: Agnès Forever

In the distant past of April 2020, Chris and I dove deep into an episode of our podcast Cinema Dual on the films of French filmmaker Agnès Varda. Though technically not my first experience with Varda, that week of watching Varda’s movies was eye-opening, to such an extent that when Criterion announced they were going to release a Blu Ray box set of her complete filmography, I jumped at the chance to catch up on everything I had missed. Each post will cover 1 of the 15 discs in the set.

Having gone through the (unsurprisingly well done) booklet of essays and the physical packaging of the set, my main question going into this project was one of ordering. The box set organizes the movies by themes and that runs counter to my initial preference for a chronological order. Although they did include a chronology for people like me, I decided to try things their way. Fortunately the logic behind this choice becomes quickly clear.

Varda by Agnès (2019) is the last film that Varda completed before her passing that same year. Using a combination of newly shot footage and material from across her career, along with a handful of playful cinematic tricks that Varda is known for (more on that later), Varda takes the viewer on a retrospective of her 60+ years as a filmmaker. By organizing her thoughts around themes like feminism, “reality” in movies, personal history and more, Varda is able to weave together the various strands of her career in a much more creative way than a simple chronology would allow.

Should you need more proof that you are watching an Agnès Varda film, Varda can’t help but playfully mess with the film’s “reality”, even in a movie that’s theoretically about her explaining her career. Whether it’s by recreating the tracking shots from Vagabond, or in a voiceover explaining her enjoyment of doing voiceovers, or using lecture segments to maintain the movie’s narrative through-line but pulling them from different occasions in different locations, Varda likes to gently shift the world underneath as you follow the story she is telling. In that regards, it actually calls to mind the recently released I’m Thinking of Ending Things, where the viewer follows the emotional journey of the characters as the facts of their lives constantly change.

The highlight for me is probably the section later in the film where Varda focuses on her art installations and interest in photography. Although mostly known for film, Varda was prolific across various artistic media, and it’s nice to have those other aspects represented. I’d go so far to say that section forms what should be a fitting emotional climax to the film, even though the film continues for a while longer to cover the last of her movies. That would actually constitute my one mild drawback of the movie: the ending (minus the last shot which is profound), while needed for thoroughness-sake, doesn’t match the wonder of seeing some of those installations.

Varda by Agnès is an excellent starting place for this box set. It works like an overture, briefly laying out the ideas that will be explored in more depth later.

Speaking of which, Les 3 Boutons (2015) is billed as an “anti-Cinderella fairy tale”, and is both Varda’s final fictional and short film (she produced just over 20 in her career). It features a confident young farm girl who, despite a lack of control in her life, will do everything she can to forge her own path forward. She says this directly to the camera in a very Varda-esque way, all while fairly tale elements like magical dresses and buttons seem to want to drag her into another kind of story. She maintains a curious ambivalence to this pull on her, and she is entirely absent from the final scene involving a proclamation about the good fortunes of anyone who loses three button, which she had done.

That ambivalence to the expectations put on women will show up for sure again in this series, and it’s nice that Varda even in her later years, can find new ways to return to the same themes that are so dear to her. I was surprised as well to see her branching out with the use of subtle computer generated visual effects for the dress and plant. Unless I’m mistaken, I believe those effects may Varda’s only dalliance with that set of techniques, and so it becomes notable.

Taken as a pair, Varda by Agnès and Les 3 Boutons act as a course syllabus with a small introductory reading, so to speak. If what you see intrigues you, it’s absolutely worth going on the journey.

Next time: Early Varda


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