As I entered Lincoln Center to see Varda Par Agnès, I was overcome by emotions. I saw the poster with the late Agnès’ face on it proclaiming this year’s New York Film Festival dedicated to her and her legacy. A longtime staple of the festival, Agnès’ last film was having its New York premiere and I was lucky enough to snag a ticket. I’m not sure I can ever define what Agnes’ films mean to me, but her work always leaves me moved, happy, and ready to create. She found a way to be joyful, colorful, and political all at once. Her final film, Varda Par Agnès explores this legacy with Agnès herself giving one final masterclass.
A collection of footage from her films with commentary, Varda Par Agnès is a two hour introduction and retrospective to her work. Longtime fans like myself get some behind the scenes knowledge and people new to Agnès’ work get a peak into her creative philosophy. The documentary also focuses on her amazing photography and art installations, proving the vastness of her career.
What comes through the most is Agnès’ all consuming love for life. She is a master of documenting the struggles and political reality of the world without creating a sense of deep sorrow. This is best represented when she made an installation out of the grave she made for her cat (Zgougou’s Tomb). Instead of making something solemn looking, the grave itself is covered in colorful shells and flowers. In the film, they interview kids who saw the installation and they couldn’t help but smile and say how they thought a tomb would be sad but this one made them happy. A moment particularly moving for me was when one of the young girls went back alone to watch the installation video again because it is better and you take in more when you are alone. A future solo cinephile blossoming before our eyes!
As quirky as most people know Agnès to be, her work deals intimately with issues of race and class within France and beyond. Black Panthers, a short documentary, shows the group’s resilience as their leaders are arrested. Varda humorously admits she was able to film the protest by walking around with a sign that said “French Television.” The Gleaners and I shows the modern versions of the famous figures in Millet paintings while paying tribute to the class inequality inherent to capitalism that leads people to pick up leftover food from Parisian markets and the potatoes (some heart shaped) in the countryside. The documentary also interviews squatters, but never in a judgemental way. Agnès loves to get to know people, all people. While some may think her style detracts from the political issues at play, Agnès represents how to be a thoughtful activist without sacrificing joy or artistic style. She makes death colorful, reproductive rights musical, she is a treasure.
The best part of Varda Par Agnès is getting more time. Agnès always gets the last word, as she should.