Telluride Film Review: ‘Varda by Agnès’ is a Nostalgic Return to Film School

2019 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: Agnès Varda is one of the more influential directors in French film. In her final film, “Varda by Agnès,” we take a retrospective look at the whimsical and imaginative icon’s career behind the camera.

In what comes down to nothing short of an autobiography, we follow director Agnès Varda on stage as she presents to film students and intellectuals in various locations around the world. Through these conferences or lectures, Varda provides her fans with an idea of how she saw the world through cinema, and as a result, how we were able to see cinema through her eyes.

Varda began her six-decades-plus career as a photographer, establishing the faculties for setting the stage in a scene. With her husband, Jacques Demy, she would go on to be a pioneer of French New Wave cinema. The film adequately establishes her roots through a series of photographs and film clips that overlap as she is chatting with her congregation. From here, “Varda by Agnès” dives into her more noteworthy efforts, including “Cléo From 5 to 7” (1962) and “Le Bonheur” (1965) before finding it’s way to her later works, including “The Gleaners and I” (2000) and the Oscar-nominated doc “Faces Places” (2017). It is a historic landmark for the eccentric innovator’s career.

In this regard, “Varda by Agnès” works like a bit of film school masterclass, something her fans—both new and old—will want to eat up, digest, and regurgitate in coffee shops or some Whole Foods location where highbrow conversations about cinema are had. It’s the type of film that works for both those who are and those who claim to be true Varda fans.

While this is all fascinating to the avid devotees of Agnès Varda’s career, it is not a film designed to perform well for those who are less familiar with her work. For those not as well versed, the clips from her films may seem a tad amateur and prosaic. And that, quite frankly, is because they are. Varda’s charm was in large part due to her simplistic, if not often straightforward, style of creating. While that works in some degree for the film recap portion of the documentary, the film falls off a cliff in its second hour, as we delve deeper into her work as a visual and installation artist. The latter half is so thinly spread and is more than just a tad self-indulgent. Sadly, “Varda by Agnès” loses all the steam it procured in it’s better half. In addition to this unbalance, the film is a tad repetitive of her early career introspective, “The Beaches of Agnès” (2008).

Completed just two months before Varda would pass from cancer, “Varda by Agnès” focuses on the auteur’s three main measures on which filmmaking relies: inspiration, creation, and sharing. It is upon these three focuses that she was able to sustain such a lengthy career. It is the latter third Agnès Varda excelled at, and the one in which she, beyond her grave, would most want the world to focus on.

“Varda by Agnès” is distributed by MK2 Films and the release date is to be determined.

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