The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other perpetually. [...] Gradually the fibres of the bonfire were fused into one haze, one incandescence which lifted the weight of the woollen grey sky on top of it and turned it into a million atoms of soft blue.
—Virginia Woolf, The Waves1
Last month, I was in Lisbon and went to the Cinemateca Portuguesa to meet the filmmaker Rita Azevedo Gomes. We were going to meet for a coffee but she wanted to give me a tour of the Cinemateca’s bookshop first. I had seen her films The Portuguese Woman (2018) and Danses macabres, squelettes et autres fantaisies (2019) and have since continued to familiarize myself with her work. She kindly pointed me to books that she had made; there was one about Hitchcock, another about Joan Crawford. One book had paper that she had made herself at home, others had collections of images she had diligently gathered from different films and re-captured on interpositive film with a Moviola. There were images that were vignetted or textured due to her desire to re-seize these moments. Her book Um mar de Filmes (A Sea of Films) featured layers of transparencies and text which accompanied a curious arrangement of photographs. I saw a darkly lit ocean from Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet, a hand-painted photograph of Mary Pickford, a portrait of Gloria Swanson behind a screen of lace and many other elegant configurations. In observing the way she structured the placement of these images, I wondered, how do our minds organize the geographies of our thoughts into visual landscapes?
In The Beaches of Agnès (2008), Agnès Varda said: “If you opened people up we’d find landscapes, if you opened me up we’d find beaches.”
I remember when I found out that Varda had died, I was on a bus in Iceland. I was working on a friend’s film, aptly titled Geographies of Solitude, up in the north in a town called Blönduós. I moved through ice fields, mountains of minerals and snow drifts. I looked at these barren landscapes and thought about what kind of interior state was being exhibited in the vista before me.
In Varda by Agnès, Varda’s last film, the director states that beaches are a paysage mentale (a landscape of mind). For her, they were a place of inspiration. With Varda, things come in threes. Beaches are composed of the following elements: sky, sand, and sea. Similarly, her filmmaking practice is fueled by three important components: inspiration (the desire to make a film), creation (what the film means, the structure), and sharing (the communion of her work with a larger audience). With these concepts in mind, I began to think further on the function of image books—the gesture of collecting images and structuring them in a particular way in order to project, share, or materialize what dwells in the recesses of our minds.
Varda by Agnès is one such exercise. Looking at its surface, one might observe that the film serves as a thoughtful index, or table of contents, to the director’s filmography. However, it can also be seen as her own effort to map and process her transition into the last stages of life through the creation of a tapestry composed of lectures, clips from films, and documentation of installations she had created over the course of six and a half decades. In the film she says, “We accepted to film things we don’t understand because in cinema and elsewhere it’s important to feel, to experience.” Varda was courageous. Aware of her illness for years, she did not retreat or cease to output and share work, she continued to feel, to experience and to share her last stages of life through her cinema. Since the theme of death is interlaced so thoughtfully throughout this film, I began to see this final work as a strategy for her to process, experience and come to terms with mortality.
When re-visiting her 1962 film Cléo 5 to 7 (1962), Varda states that she kept the mental image of death itself whispering in a woman’s ear (an image taken from a painting by Baldung Grien) as her main source of inspiration for the project. When her husband Jacques Demy was dying, she made Jacquot de Nantes (1991), where she re-staged his childhood and captured unforgettable intimate close ups of his person before his passing. It was said that this film was one where she perhaps had “the desire to stop time and deny death.” However, in response, she states that she in fact did not want to stop time, but actually wanted to accompany it and Jacques as he was dying.
Throughout Varda by Agnès, she articulates the gentle aches caused by the passing of time and the challenges which present themselves when illustrating it. She does this by delineating her ideologies behind subjective and objective time. “Time feels different if we’re happy or if we’re anxious… then there’s mechanical time, we can’t argue with it, it is counted in hours, minutes and seconds.” She was keen to accurately represent distance and geography in her films and never wanted to inhibit her audience from experiencing the sensation of its passage. Varda speaks about how in Cléo 5 to 7 we see Cléo take all ten steps downstairs and all of the steps across the courtyard. In Daguerréotypes (1976), Varda highlights that she wanted to take the time within the film to show how long it actually takes to buy something. She would let people sit in silence and would capture dignified moments of reflection where the audience might feel the auratic qualities of an individual's interior state.
“Even though I was young, I imagined my own death,” confesses Sandrine Bonnaire when asked about playing Mona in Vagabond (1985). The shooting of this film enabled Bonnaire to envision her own passing which was a terrifying experience for her as a young actor. During the shoot Varda made the actress get into a body bag and had it zipped up, which pushed Bonnaire into an anxious state. Varda points out that after this infamous death scene the next shot in the film is a beach, which in Vardidian speak, gently points to the fact that Mona may finally be at peace. After watching her struggle with so many violent and rugged terrains her spirit is free to roam softer and more inviting horizons.
Allegiances aside, when Godard created The Image Book in 2018, this was his own weaving of fragments which formed his very own architecture of thought. In the film he says: “Man’s own condition is to think with his hands.” Much like Gomes and Godard, Varda had a profound practice stemming from tactility and embodied an artisanal approach in all stages of production. The advancements of handheld digital camcorders in the early 2000s gave way to the actual incorporation of her hands in her work. In her 2000 documentary, The Gleaners and I (where we famously see her hand attempt to “catch trucks”), she said “This is my project. To film one hand my other hand.” She had a holistic sense of execution in her filmmaking craft, though she not only worked with her hands but with her heart.
In viewing Varda by Agnès, we see how her films were guided by her subjects. Varda engaged with each project like a curious child, composing images which sought to discover and capture the “spontaneity of an encounter.” She approached her practice with an affinity for examining the macro and the micro, private and social, intimate and collective. She moved from documenting her neighbors on Rue de Daguerre, to raising awareness for the Black Panthers, to speaking out about issues of women’s bodies and control. Most importantly though, throughout all of her works, documentary or fiction, Varda always underlined the importance to credit and name the people she featured in her films with an utmost empathetic desire to honor the individual.
“Hundreds of anonymous people are gone and forgotten,” says Varda when describing the experience of filming the installation titled “Personnes” by the visual artist Christian Boltanski. Footage pans across a wall of rusting boxes as he speaks about his decision to create a space to honor anonymous individuals whose lives were lost in the Holocaust. In his description, “it’s as though each box has some spirit or heart inside of it.” Varda herself often experimented with the idea of memorials, when she made an installation dedicated to the widows of the Isle of Noirmoutier. In another instance, she famously made a grave for her cat Zgougou as an installation at Maison Cartier. The tomb itself actually exists in Noirmoutier, where she filmed it from a crane and then a helicopter. In examining the footage with an aerial view of the island’s shores, she remarks, “seen from further away, [Zgougou] was like any other human. Miniscule in the universe.” This scene inextricably ties us to the topography of Varda’s ethos; we are all at once significant and microscopic, unique and independent but indivisible through the humbling landscapes we will all inhabit one day. In death, we are all the same.
As Varda by Agnès closes we find Varda back on the familiar shores of a beach sitting with JR, her co-director from Faces Places (2017). She says: “The sea has the last word. And the sand, and the wind.” In the same way that Jacquot de Nantes accompanies Jacques Demy as he passes, Varda by Agnès, in an ingenious sleight of hand, moves us to witness a poignant act of emotional generosity. In the undercurrent of its last frames, we realize that Varda has somehow found a way to simultaneously process her own passing while subtly inviting her audience to accompany and acknowledge her last moments. She says quietly, “[I am] disappearing in the blur. Leaving you.” And in an instant, she herself vanishes through the horizon of a sandstorm, into a million atoms of soft blue.