When Agnès Varda died in March at the age of 90, Jean-Luc Godard sent a sympathy gift to her daughter. That small gesture should resonate for anyone who saw “Faces/Places,” Varda’s Oscar-nominated penultimate feature, which culminated at Godard’s doorstep. Varda’s good-natured attempt to introduce the fellow French New Wave filmmaker to her new friend and co-director JR is a bittersweet moment, because the reclusive Godard stands them up. Godard was a close acquaintance of Varda before he receded to the shadows, but his absence in “Faces/Places” didn’t tell the whole story.
“He sent me a kind of photo collage of Agnés,” said Rosalie Varda, who produced “Faces/Places.” “It was something special. It’s a secret. But he sent me something nice. I think he cared for Agnès a lot. He saw all her films.”
It’s only fitting that a plot point from Varda’s late work would continue with her offspring. The 60-year-old Rosalie has helped tell her mother’s stories for the past decade, and with the essential “Varda By Agnes,” she’s carrying that task across the finish line.
As the CEO of Ciné-Tamaris, the company Agnés herself launched in 1975, Rosalie oversees the archives of her mother’s films as well as those of her adopted father, Jacques Demy. (Mathieu Demy, her brother, lives in Los Angeles but frequently visits Rosalie in Paris to help out.) Rosalie works out of the home office where Agnès lived with her cat, Mimi, a “Faces/Places” scene-stealer. “Mimi is my office mate now because Agnès is not there anymore,” said Rosalie, smiling as she sat for an interview at the Telluride Film Festival.
Earlier in the weekend, Martin Scorsese participated in a conversation with Rosalie and Mathieu about their mother’s legacy. Dressed in a colorful shirt with the word “LUCKY” printed across the front, Rosalie beamed with pride over the festival experience, and channeled Agnès’ skill as a sweet and insightful conversationalist. At the same time, she was clearly working through the recent loss.
“It was difficult for us because when Agnès was dying, it was not my mother who was dying,” Rosalie said. “It was a public figure. Even now, I don’t think it’s my mother who died. She was my mother, but since we worked on her films, every day I talk about her, I talk about her films, I renegotiate deals for them, so I feel like she is here.”
It helps that with every screening of “Varda By Agnes,” which plays at the Toronto and New York film festivals before its release this fall, the filmmaking matriarch tells her own story. The movie, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February where Varda made her last public appearance, culls from three years worth of masterclasses from Varda’s international travels.
Using a series of playful devices, the filmmaker breaks down her 60-plus years of filmmaking, one movie at a time. Varda’s warm persona pairs nicely with profound explanations about her process — from the temporal sophistication of her seminal feminist work “Cleo from 5 to 7” to the tracking shots of “Vagabond,” the radical politics in “One Sings and the Other Doesn’t” through the documentary aesthetics of “Daguerrotypes” and “Black Panthers.” Later passages engage with Varda’s switch to lightweight digital filmmaking, when she reinvented herself through diary films like her essential travelogue, “The Gleaners and I.”
Rosalie brought the idea for “Varda By Agnés” to her mother in 2015, before the breakout success of “Faces/Places” boosted her profile,once again, as a major filmmaker. “I said, ‘We have to begin a document of your legacy, because you speak so well about your work, unlike some directors,’” Rosalie said.
Rosalie spent 25 years as a costume designer and fashion artist before she began to produce her mother’s films full time. “I decided to stop my job and really concentrate on helping her to be able, at the end of her life as an artist, not to be worried about production costs and money — to just deal with that urgency to create,” Rosalie said. She chuckled. “At the age of 20, I never would have said that at 50, I’d be working for my mother.”
It was Rosalie who connected Agnès with JR, seeing a similar creative spirit in his large-format photography and interest in capturing the lives of working-class people. As their “Faces/Places” collaboration evolved, Rosalie ran the show behind the scenes. “First it was an installation, then it was a short film, so I tried to get money for that,” she said. “Then they said it’s not a short film, it’s a documentary!” she laughed. “But I loved that.”
She built the logistics of the shoot around her aging mother’s limitations — “Faces/Places” was shot four days a month over the course of a year. (“For a production budget, that’s not good,” Rosalie said.) She eventually secured financing from various sources, including Cohen Media head Charles Cohen.
The effort paid off. “Faces/Places” magnified Varda’s profile in a new way, introducing her good-natured screen presence to a new generation, and scored her both an honorary Academy Award and a nomination for Best Documentary. “She is an icon now, but didn’t have the life of an icon,” Rosalie said. “She had such integrity. She always said you have to struggle in life. She was always in the process of reinventing narrative, or giving us the possibility of looking at something new.”
Before Rosalie was born, she already figured in her mother’s cinema: Her experimental 1958 short film “L’Opéra-Mouffe” was made while Agnès was expecting and opens with the image of a nude pregnant woman.
By the early ‘60s, Varda was a celebrated figure of the French New Wave’s Left Bank, and Rosalie witnessed her mother’s prominent role in the explosion of film culture from the inside out. “I was always aware that she was special, but for me, this was a normal life — being with film directors, being with artists,” Rosalie said. “I could not compare it with anything else. It was normal to see Antonioni or Jim Morrison in my house, to go see Fellini’s set. I did not know another world.”
Rosalie insisted that she always got along with her mother, who dedicated “One Sings and the Other Doesn’t” — the story of two teens whose friendship continues into their counterculture adulthood — to her daughter when she was 18. (Rosalie also has a cameo in the film.) “I loved it, because that film really gives you joy and permission to love,” she said. “It’s not a film against men, it’s a film against people who are not able to love. It’s a good way to speak about feminism.”
Having made her directorial debut with the 1958 ensemble drama “La Pointe Courte,” Agnès’ work predated the famous men associated with the French New Wave, including Godard and Francois Truffaut and others who wrote for the influential Cahiers du Cinema before making their own innovative features. Rosalie said she never felt that her mother resented the attention lavished on their work over hers. “She didn’t want to be in the boy’s club,” Rosalie said. “They didn’t want women around, because they wanted to be with each other, drinking, smoking, thinking about films. She didn’t care about that. She wanted to do her work.”
During the last years of Varda’s life, she was more visible than ever. In 2018, one year after “Faces/Places” premiered at Cannes, she stood next to jury president Cate Blanchett and a range of other female actors and directors on the red carpet for a silent protest to raise awareness about the lack of female representation in the lineup. Blanchett and Varda read a statement in English and French proclaiming that the 82 women were there “in solidarity with women of all industries.” The event epitomized the visual sophistication of Varda’s activism throughout her career. Standing nearby at the time, Rosalie noticed that another Cannes juror, Ava DuVernay, became enamored of her mother; eventually, DuVernay pitched in with finishing funds for “Varda By Agnés.”
Rosalie said that while recording masterclasses for the documentary, she noticed that the crowds for her mother skewed younger. “It wasn’t just people who saw ‘Cleo’ in the ‘60s anymore, but people under 35 who maybe discovered her with ‘Gleaners,’” Rosalie said. “She became more popular because she was easy to talk to and she felt a lot of empathy toward them.”
In February, after she screened “Varda By Agnés” in Berlin, Agnès sat down at a press conference next to Rosalie. “I don’t see well,” she told the room. “You are out of focus, but beautiful.” Before taking questions, she opened with some prepared remarks. “About interviews, I’ve done many of them,” she said. “But now that I’m over 90, I’ve decided to choose what to do. I will no longer do person-to-person interviews. Now…” She trailed off into a coughing fit before regaining her composure. “I’m yours.” She died after a prolonged cancer battle less than two months later. “I think she was in peace,” Rosalie said. “She had a beautiful life.”
But for Rosalie, who has three grown children of her own, the work has just started. She recently produced a new DVD box set of Agnès’ films that was released in France, has plans for a similar project with the Criterion Collection, and hopes to mount an exhibition of her mother’s photography in the U.S. “I want to protect these films, to share them with people,” Rosalie said. With Varda’s death, Godard remains the only living legend of the French New Wave. “It’s sad that they’re all dying,” Rosalie said, “but it’s the road of life.”
At this year’s Cannes, the festival’s official poster showed Varda on the set of her debut, standing on the shoulders of her cinematographer. “I went to Cannes and she was everywhere,” Rosalie said. “It’s a strange feeling. The loss of my mother is something very personal. It’s a little box inside of me.”
Agnès‘ final days were spent at home surrounded by many relatives and friends. “She said, ‘I think this is good, it’s time to go away,’” Rosalie said. “It was like a scene in her films.” Asked about her mother’s last words, Rosalie hesitated. “I don’t remember,” she said. “Or, even if I do remember, I don’t want to tell you, because it’s not interesting.” The closing image of “Varda By Agnès,” however, speaks volumes: As she sits on a beach next to JR, she’s engulfed in a sandstorm. “I think this is how I will end our chat,” she says, “disappearing in a blur.” And then she does.
Janus Films will release “Varda By Agnés” later this year.