It’s a sweet and lasting irony that the least-noticed director of the French New Wave — not coincidentally, the only girl in the boys’ club — was the most celebrated in the end. In 2017, Agnès Varda capped her ninth decade on earth with an honorary Oscar and, a few months later, a best documentary nomination for “Faces Places,” her 23rd feature film and a delightful surprise hit. She was gone by last March, but not before completing the documentary career summary “Varda by Agnès,” which arrives at the Brattle this week. It’s not her greatest work but it’s warm, witty, and thorough. It’s a little like visiting a beloved old aunt who you suddenly remember has more smarts and creativity — more balls — than anyone else you know.
In 2018, Varda arrived in Cambridge to deliver two talks as part of Harvard’s prestigious Norton Lectures; as is clear in “Varda by Agnès,” she’d already polished the routine of discussing her life and works in the most audience-friendly way. A lot of the film consists of the aged filmmaker onstage in Paris, addressing an audience of young cineastes on the triumphs and vicissitudes of making movies.
Film clips weave in and out, not in chronological order but at the whims of Agnès. She discusses not only the successes but the bombs, including “A Hundred and One Nights” (1995), a comedic tribute to a century of French cinema that featured cameos by every French star alive – and Robert De Niro.
Looking at the filmography, one realizes how rarely the movies truly examine the inner lives of women. “Cleo From 5 to 7” (1962) concerns a singer (Corinne Marchand) waiting to hear about a cancer diagnosis; it switches halfway through from the world looking at Cleo to Cleo looking at the world. “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (1977) follows a friendship through the peaks and valleys of French Second Wave feminism; “Le Bonheur” (1965) coolly looks at a husband’s infidelity through the lens of his self-absorbed pursuit of happiness. ”Vagabond” (1985), about a rootless young woman, is possibly Varda’s masterpiece, and a filmed reunion in the new movie with star Sandrine Bonnaire is a moment to treasure.
It’s Varda’s documentary work that may last the longest, though, because she brought herself close to her subjects with a unique sympathy. “Mur Murs” (1981), “The Gleaners and I” (2000), “The Beaches of Agnès” (2008), and “Faces Places” all lovingly attend to the real people of France and elsewhere: the poor, the hard-working, the villagers, the dispossessed. Glimpses of lesser-known projects like “Some Widows of Noirmoutier” (2006) and the Jane Birkin profile “Jane B. by Agnès V” (1988) show Varda’s interest in people spreading a wide net.
In her final decade, she was a familiar caricature to movie-lovers: an ageless gnome of cinema with two-toned hair and an air of humorous sang-froid. One of the treats of “Varda by Agnès” is seeing the director in photos and on-set footage over the years, forever self-possessed, always questing. That bowl haircut seems to have been given to her at birth. She upheld the memory of her husband, director Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”), to the point of making a film about his childhood (the charming “Jacquot de Nantes,” 1991) from stories he told her as he lay dying.
“Varda by Agnès” is especially recommended for its spotlight on Varda’s early years as a photographer — the work is stunning and deserves a serious retrospective — and her 21st-century career as an installation artist, provocatively mixing film and physical materials in sometimes head-spinning ways. If you feel the movie’s length in these sections, the works themselves — like a series of “movie shacks” made from celluloid strips of Varda’s films — are tart, funny, surprising, and filled with an enduring affection.
It’s that last that sets Varda apart from her New Wave brothers — the macabre Chabrol, the abstruse Rivette, chatty Eric Rohmer, earnest Francois Truffaut, and Godard, the dour, semiotic troll under the bridge of French cinema. “Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love,” Varda tells her students (which would include us) from her director’s chair on stage. “If you find them extraordinary, as I did.” She did, and she was.
VARDA BY AGNÈS
Directed by Agnès Varda and Didier Rouget. At Brattle. In French, with subtitles. 126 minutes. Unrated.