In her sweet-old-lady period — if we could ever label the filmmaker who gave us Vagabond as a sweet old anything — Agnès Varda, with her two-toned crown of hair, resembles a combination aging hipster and cast member from one of the Hobbit movies.
Sadly, we lost Varda last year, at the age of 90. Happily, she leaves us Varda by Agnès, the writer-director's wondrous greatest hits package, overflowing with pithy observations and numerous clips from her 50-title filmography, wrapped up in a live show in front of an audience invited for a "chat" celebrating her birthday. True to form, it's a quirky, kaleidoscopic, anti-chronological peek at some (but not all) of her films, plus films by people she admires, gathered together under one whimsical umbrella.
Those who can't resist putting artists in orderly slots could well be driven mad by the subjects she chooses. In the documentary Daguerréotypes (1976) she and her camera browse around her Parisian neighborhood, watching folks bake bread and repair accordions. The doc Uncle Yanco (1967) finds her in Sausalito visiting her long-lost uncle at his houseboat. While in California, she impulsively decides to document the Black Panthers, on location in Oakland (1968). Her latter-day docs cover everything from artist JR's large-scale photographic murals (Faces Places, 2017) to one of her favorite subjects — herself and her work, as in The Beaches of Agnès (2008).
Varda pays tribute to her late husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy, with the doc Jacquot de Nantes (1991), and even selects scenes from his The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort for the sheer joy of it. But the most satisfying clips come from Varda's narrative fictions. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), tells the story of a self-absorbed entertainer in the breezy, fast-paced style of the French New Wave, which Varda helped invent. Vagabond (1985), on the other hand, is the sobering portrait of an emotionally troubled young homeless woman played by Sandrine Bonnaire — 34 years later, actor Bonnaire joins Varda for a quick commentary on that powerful portrait of despair. Varda's oeuvre is notable for its feminism.
A filmmaker who married a filmmaker and hung out with filmmakers most of her life can probably be forgiven for constructing One Hundred and One Nights (1995), a dizzyingly referential comic romp that spins riffs from 100 years of movies, orchestrated by Monsieur Cinéma (Michel Piccoli), with help from Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Robert De Niro, Anouk Aimée, and Alain Delon — all essentially playing themselves. Like the woman herself, Varda par Agnès is practically irresistible.
NOTE: Long after our deadline for the January 8, 2020 print edition, we received word from Rialto Cinemas Elmwood that the opening date for Varda by Agnès had been changed to Friday, January 24. Bide your time and go see the film when it finally arrives. It’s worth it.