A visionary filmmaker touted as the Godmother of the French New Wave, Agnés Varda often centered her work around the very idea of death. Her groundbreaking 1962 film Cléo from 5 to 7 follows a young singer around Paris in real time as she awaits a possible cancer diagnosis. Rich with tension and humor, it addresses what it means to acknowledge one’s own mortality and to be a woman who has only ever seen herself through the gaze of men. 

Throughout her long and illustrious career, Varda continued to hold a mirror to her audiences, though its reflections were anything but conventional. Forever a flâneur, the archetypal “passionate spectator” of modern life, Varda created whimsically iconoclastic, deeply humanizing portraits of people and phenomena that surround everyone but are seen by no one. 

At the age of 72, Varda released The Gleaners and I (2000), a shockingly fun documentary that playfully intertwines narratives about food waste and homelessness with her own experiences of living in an “expiring” body. To Varda, aging wasn’t a specter to outrun: she embraced the lines on her withering hands as friends made throughout a life well-lived. Though both films were filmed decades apart, they perfectly encapsulate Varda as an artist who challenged the very foundations of cinema and society while loudly championing the magic of the human experience. 

The Pierre-Henri Gibert documentary Viva Varda! played at the Toronto International Film Festival this week to celebrate the life of this cinematic titan who spent decades redefining what it meant to live and die. Only 67 minutes long, it’s packed with never-before-seen archival footage of Varda and interviews with her loved ones and collaborators. 

Varda was no stranger to autobiographical filmmaking, leaving Gibert with his work cut out for him: what more can one say about an artist who left such a strong, decisive record of her own life? How much more is it appropriate to reveal about a “control freak” who closely monitored her own image in the public eye? It’s unclear whether Gibert struggled with these issues of creativity or conscience. 

Though rich with new footage of Varda’s life and creative process, the documentary is otherwise formulaic in a manner antithetical to her puckish, genre-defying ethos. Fans may delight in her witty quips and the brilliant shots stitched in from her films, but there is little enjoyment or merit involved for anyone unfamiliar with her work. Individuals from either camp may find themselves asking, “Why do they keep interviewing Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan? Was nobody in France available?”

Regardless, her quips are very enjoyable, and the interviews offer rare insights into her character. The documentary contains the first and only record thus far of her bisexuality! It also details her involvement in the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement’s fight for legal abortion. One could describe Varda as courageous, but courage was irrelevant. Her activism was so natural and matter-of-fact that it takes the documentarian’s voiceover to understand the immense backlash she faced for her advocacy. To her final days, she remained staunchly humanist because it felt right, not because she was following an arbitrary moral code ascribed by church or state.

We eventually learn more about Varda the person than Varda the activist. Defying her popular conception as a sweet grandma with a two-toned bowl cut and serene smile, her younger self is sharp-tongued, mercurial, and independent to a fault. She wants a child? Naturally, she conceives one, removes the father from the equation, and raises her first daughter alone. 

Moments of sweetness emerge with the arrival of her longtime lover Jacques Demy, another New Wave icon whose spectacular, candy-coloured films still reverberate in the works of contemporary directors like Wes Anderson. The legendary Demy-Varda relationship is a case study in the documentary’s primary strength: it’s new for us to see Varda at her worst. Viva Varda! lends a darker dimension to this canonized fairytale couple by dwelling on their painful period of separation. 

Upon their reunion, we’re offered yet another window into Varda’s relationship with death. In the most abjectly heartbreaking sequence thus far, we watch her create Jacquot de Nantes (1991), a filmic tribute to Demy’s childhood constructed during his final days suffering from HIV — a monument to the boy she never knew, who would one day become the man she so ardently loved. For the first time, Varda’s filmmaking became a tool to negotiate with time and stop death rather than a refractive lens through which she could admire its passing. 

Varda believed that power comes from the personal, and so it’s only natural that a love for her work is inextricable from a love for the woman herself. This summer, I took advantage of a miserably rainy (read: perfect for pretentious self-indulgence) afternoon in Paris to embark on a pilgrimage to Montparnasse Cemetery, where she lies buried with Demy. Though the sun made an appearance upon my arrival, the cemetery grounds were so dense with tombs of miscellaneous luminaries that I quickly began to feel worse than when I’d arrived. My wet sandals squelched particularly loudly while I passed an old couple locked in a tearful embrace. I only felt worse when I had to pass them again, again, again, because I’d foolishly gotten lost somewhere between Baudrillard and Belmondo. But when I found Varda’s grave, all was forgotten. 

Fortuitously undisturbed by the rain, it was covered with fresh flowers and kiss marks in every possible variation of red, pink, and purple. It thrummed with the love of people who’d been here before me, who’d adored this woman since long before I’d even heard of her. When I bent to kiss the gravestone, it was cool against my lips. I imagined it buzzing with Varda’s energy, imagined absorbing something of her through this brief, precious contact.  By the time I stood back to survey my work — and bemoan not having worn a more pigmented lipstick — I’d taken something from Varda equally as much as having left something of my own. In fact, didn’t that hold true for all her work? She inhabited her world with the same irreverent curiosity that moved her camera. To look through Varda’s eyes is to identify with her philosophy of cheerful flâneurism.

 In an age of cynicism and overexposure, Agnés Varda remains the loving grandmother who lived life true to her values and actually liked it. She’d tasted the vinegar of life and found it to be an excellent wine, proved that you can be staunchly political without compromising your happiness, and ultimately left indelible marks in the hearts of thousands. Viva Varda! further galvanizes her power by revealing the flaws in her character — yes, she was harsh, exacting, and capricious, but that only makes her warmth, tenderness, and joy feel more authentic. If anything, her flaws have lent stronger ideological foundations to what could appear otherwise as a cult of shallow whimsy. Though the documentary is not nearly as inspiring a portrait as any of her own autobiographical works, we can be grateful for any new memento of this beloved patron saint of love and life.