REVIEW: “A Tender Goodbye” – ‘Varda By Agnès’ (2019)


“A beautiful tribute to a remarkable woman.”

With the wind in her face, Agnès Varda’s soft voice cuts through all other noise. The short woman leans on her stick as she balances on a slow-moving industrial camera rig, reeling off anecdotes about her career. Varda By Agnès is the last film from Varda, after the devastating news of her passing in March. The film marks a moment for Varda herself to reflect on her films, jumping from topic to topic, film to film, wisdom is abundant.

This is a tribute to Varda that will keep her memory alive; an intimate walkthrough, from her perspective, of her decade-spanning career. Talking candidly, she points to three elements in her work that she deems to be essential: inspiration, creation and sharing. She speaks to her balance of documentary and fiction and how they blend together under her watch. Even in her fiction films there are elements of documentary present, she says it herself: “real people are at the heart of my work.” This attention to people is central to Varda’s career, it is somewhat touching that her final film turns the attention onto herself.

Perched upon her director’s chair, labelled with ‘AGNES V’ as bold as her haircut, Varda’s perspective is unique. This film solely relies on, and benefits from, Varda’s ninety-year experience of life and filmmaking. It is amazing how someone can be so charismatic that even after two hours of talking she remains entirely engaging. One aspect of Varda that also shines bright is her accepting nature, this is visible in both her being welcoming and open-minded towards people, and her integration of digital mediums. Varda is shown as woman whose kind heart is reflected in every step she took. The film becomes more of a character study on Varda remaining open and ready to listen to anyone that had the joy of entering her orbit. 

Agnes Varda sat in her director chair, on the beach with wooden seagulls spread around the sand. she looks out on the still ocean

Although a documentary structure is obvious, with Varda’s personality comes lively energy. Her stances on particular topics shine clear: “obviously I was a feminist… I still am!” and her energy extends to her analogies as she navigates her favourite surroundings: “The opposite of a wall is a beach”. Intentionally political or not (very likely the former), Varda’s comment displays a perspective that she utilises in her filmmaking. The beach becomes a landscape for her expression, referencing the horrific image of a three-year-old child dead on the beach amidst the poor treatment of refugees. Varda has no care in speaking her mind. 

Varda is the epitome of growing old gracefully. Varda By Agnès is her finally filming herself over others. The autobiographical documentary shows how time can pass in a blur, but the memory of Agnès will be anything but fleeting. There is great fondness from Varda as she speaks about those who impacted her life. JR is one individual whose friendship was important to them both. Varda talks about their pairing and the wonderful Faces Places that came from it: a documentary that captured Varda’s intrigued spirit, still easily keeping up with modern filmmaking and welcoming JR’s style of working with people. 

Once again, Varda finds herself back on the beach. A clip from Faces Places shows Varda gazing out at the entirity of the beach that stretches out in front of her; the sand, the sea, and the sky, all succumbing to Varda’s gaze, it is a goodbye in the most humbling of ways. Varda By Agnès is a beautiful tribute to a remarkable woman, a memorial to her filmography and her life.