What is left there to say about Agnès Varda? The self-styled grandmother of the French New Wave was at the forefront of cinema’s evolution for well over 60 years. She pioneered a strain of women-driven stories that delved into prickly contemporary issues, made documentaries about the Black Panthers, won the Golden Lion and an honourary Oscar, and became a late-in-life fashion icon with her fabulous two-tone hair. Few directors of any gender can lay claim to what she did, and her place in history has long been secured. Detailing any of this is a feat in and of itself, but it’s also tough because Varda was a staunch documentarian of her own life. Hasn’t she said it all already? So, what new is there to reveal, and how do you find time for it in a film with a meagre running time of 67 minutes? Give Pierre-Henri Gibert a slap on the back for getting the job done.
Viva Varda! is the first project made about the late filmmaker that she is not directly involved in, although her children are present as talking heads, always referring to their mother by her chosen first name. With some previously unseen footage, Gibert has plenty of material to mine for those gold moments. The documentary runs through the major beats of her career, as well as her early life and marriage to the legendary Jacques Demy, another director of note. Varda was the daughter from a well-to-do industrial family, her father a snob who viewed his own workers as being only a level above dirt. Through communist politics and a fervour for photography, she found her way to art, particularly filmmaking, even though she had no university education in the form and little money.
The basics of Varda’s career are touched upon here, with Gibert smartly deciding not to do a Wikipedia-esque listing of her vast and varied filmography. The film opens with the success of Vagabond, perhaps her magnum opus and the drama that pushed her into the upper echelons of recognition beyond the festival circuit. It’s a gateway for Gilbert to tie Varda’s art to her life and politics, but also one of many mirrors that Varda used to reflect herself and her ideals.
Varda’s third-act evolution into a cuddly senior of the film world was one of many carefully calculated moves, Gilbert suggests. It was a way for her to retain control over how the world perceived her as well as keep all eyes on her after decades in and out of critical recognition. Viva Varda! doesn’t scorn this decision, but it’s also not a piece of hagiography. As Varda’s own children and many talking-heads, including figures like Vagabond star Sandrine Bonnaire and the late great Jane Birkin admit, lovely Agnès could be a taskmaster. She was obsessive, hated to let go of control on anything, and steamrolled over all she saw as dissenters. She wasn’t Godard or anything — and one critic even laughs at how Varda’s directorial demands being derided while those of her male contemporaries were heralded — but it is the flipside to the image we’ve all had of her in the final decade of her career. She’s still seen as loving, eccentric but brilliant, but don’t expect a rose-tinted lens.
The film is similarly candid in its discussion of Varda’s marriage to Demy, best known for directing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Their artistic sensibilities seemed to be in utter opposition of one another - she preferred realism and politics, he made musicals and embraced romanticism - and their jealousies of one another could be brutal. Their image as the forever-loving celebrity couple of 20th-century French auteurs takes a hit as the documentary explores their rocky times and many years of separation, during which Demy explored his bisexuality. In his later years, they reunited and she took on the dual role of caregiver and mythologiser as Demy died of AIDS. Varda threw herself into making Jacquot de Nantes, the ultimate Demy love letter that recreated his early years in Nazi-occupied France and how he evolved from the son of a mechanic to an artist. Art is how some of us tell one another of our love. What other language could ever hope to fully convey such heights?
A compilation of archival television interviews with Varda reveals her media savvy and biting wit. Those who underestimated her did not take long to realize their mistakes. These clips also note how candid Varda was about her own career through its highs and lows. None of her films really made any money, she struggled to get funding, and she felt unappreciated as French cinema shifted away from the stuff she made. She produced her own work, a process she clearly found far less invigorating than directing but one that proved necessary for a woman who wanted to look after her kids and work at the same time. But she also knew to embrace the future. Varda embraced digital cameras at their advent, using them to make one of her greatest films, The Gleaners and I. For the film, Varda travelled throughout France to document those who live off of discarded crops and trash, once again using her politics and herself to plunder the oft-unexplored.
Gibert doesn’t experiment much with the form, keeping Viva Varda pretty conventional. The subject is unique enough to not require a quirkier foundation. Everyone who discusses Varda is clearly highly passionate about her work, such as director Atom Egoyan who eagerly illustrates his love by holding up his phone to show a recording he made of an art show she staged as he talks (it’s so geeky, how can you not love him for it?) Said enthusiasm is certainly infectious, for Varda die-hards and novices alike. Documentaries like this function best as gateways to an artist’s work, and Varda has a good one in Viva Varda. Start with Vagabond, Faces Places and Cléo de 5 à 7, then go on from there. You won’t regret it.
Viva Varda! screened as part of the Official Selection at the Toronto International Film Festival. It currently does not have a US distributor.