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Review: ‘Varda by Agnès,’ a moviemaking masterclass in Agnès Varda’s final film

Agnès Varda
The late Belgium-born writer/director Agnès Varda in “Varda by Agnès.”
(Janus Films)

A director’s last film — even if it wasn’t envisioned as such — can’t help but carry an air of sadness, whatever that movie’s tone, subject or motivation. It represents a filmmaker’s final artistic statement.

And yet the personal retrospective “Varda by Agnès,” which arrives as beloved Belgian filmmaker Agnès Varda’s intended swan song — she died this year in March at the age of 90 — is as much a beautiful greeting as it is a warm goodbye. If you already love her work, from her keenly observed first feature, 1955’s “La Pointe Courte,” to her Oscar-nominated traveling art documentary “Faces Places” more than 60 years later, the fact that she chose to host an affable journey into her directing mind-set is like a “Hi, welcome back, make yourself at home” invitation into the beating heart of an artist.

And if you aren’t as familiar with the Nouvelle Vague pioneer — maybe you know some of her features but not the shorts, or her documentaries but not her narrative films — Varda’s playful tour of her life’s work in the movies is nothing less than an opportunity to get to know one of cinema’s greatest treasures.

It’s an approach to filmmaking, as she explains to us from her director’s chair perch on a Parisian opera house stage, reflected in three words that meant everything to her: inspiration, creation and sharing.

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Her insights and stories — augmented by clips and newly shot material — bear that out, in thoroughly charming and expectedly clever fashion. You could call the movie a master class, but it’s also a monologue spoken from the heart, and seen through her captivating eyes.

‘Varda by Agnès’
Agnès Varda in “Varda by Agnès.”
(Janus Films)

Varda, who started as a photographer (a discipline she gives fair attention to in the film), has always delighted in putting her passions and fascinations onscreen, whether it’s the interiority of women, the supple interplay of time and reality or the lives of real people (and even the lives of objects, as those lovingly filmed heart-shaped potatoes in “The Gleaners and I” reveal). Often you can find all of Varda’s points of engagement dancing together in her personal, detail-oriented cinema, which at its best brimmed with wonder, irreverence and intelligence.

When discussing classics such as the temporally dexterous “Cleo from 5 to 7” or “Vagabond,” with its careful tracking shots, she clues us into the way her thematic concerns informed her “cinewriting,” a word she says she prefers to “style.” She speaks of how “One Sings, The Other Doesn’t” was an attempt to express feminism as joy, and how living in Los Angeles led to a Black Panther short, the hippie lark “Lions Love (…and Lies),” a murals documentary (“Mur Murs”) and a quietly melancholy single-mother drama (“Documenteur”). She saves some of her most poignant reminiscences for the ways husband Jacques Demy affected her, most notably in her loving tribute to his childhood, “Jacquot de Nantes.”

When digital cameras came along, their fleetness and intimacy reenergized her documentaries as a source of found treasure, starting with her masterwork of societal empathy “The Gleaners and I,” and continuing through “Faces and Places,” her ebullient collaboration with the artist JR. In between, she traces the pleasure her late-career focus on art installations gave her, the triptychs and other multi-image works that enriched her enthrallment with location, time and feeling, and how the physical repurposing of film itself — including the most colorful strips from her film “La Bonheur” — became glorious constructions she called cinema shacks.

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All along, Varda is the most wide-eyed and charismatic of docents — she somehow knows how to look back in a way that feels as present as if these were aesthetic decisions made that morning. There’s surely intent in that. “Varda by Agnès” may be a summing up from one end of a long, beautiful life in art. But it has the lightness, curiosity and spirit of a first film, and that tells us who Varda the artist was too: ever inspired, ever creating, ever eager to share.

“Varda by Agnès”
(In French with English subtitles)

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours

Playing: Aero Theatre, Santa Monica


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