It's all right there in the title, a simple little thing that sounds as sensible as a well-fitting pair of shoes: Varda by Agnès. As in "Varda", the filmmaking career of one of the all-time greats, a master director if ever a director was a master, someone who has more than earned the right to have her last name presented in isolation as a grandly monolithic statement. And this is a deep dive into that Varda, how she made movies and how they work, what their cultural impact was, what they tell us about the state of filmmaking at all points from the 1950s to the 2010s. It is an auteur study.

And it is by "Agnès", a nice old woman who wants us to have a good time and feel welcome to think of her by her first name, just our friend who wants to have a chat about movies (that word, "chat" is used numerous times in the two-hour film). This is what makes Varda by Agnès such a winning, lovely work, of course: it is unfathomably generous and welcoming, because it was made by an unfathomably generous and welcoming human, that being of course Agnès Varda herself, who passed away in March of 2019, but lived to see her final project (and it is consciously designed as a final project) premiere in its original form, as a two-part television documentary. Few filmmakers - few artists in any medium - have ever taken such care to allow us to say good-bye to them, especially in the film's devastatingly sweet and lovely and emphatically definitive final shots.

But not only there. The film takes the form of a pair of lectures (recutting the two episodes into a single feature-length film muddies this and leaves a briefly confusing non-transition behind) given by Varda to an audience of cinéastes, a word the film does not use, but it's a great French term that can mean either "film maker" or "film lover", and both seem to apply here. With a great deal of candor, she explains her thought processes and filmmaking practice with the aid of several clips, offering (but never insisting upon) explanations for what her films are doing and how they're supposed to work, from the most famous (she shares the specific reason why the title character sings exactly halfway through the 1962 masterpiece Cléo from 5 to 7, as well as why she immediately thereafter removes her hat) to the most obscure (she has tremendously fond memories of filming the 1995 flop The One Hundred and One Nights of Simon Cinema). As the film develops, it silently leaves the auditorium to travel around Paris and arrive at the beaches that have been such a crucial part of her personal mythology, with her audience just as silently drifting from the crowd in the room with her to the viewer sitting on the far side of the screen.

Might as well get the big problem out of the way: this isn't news. Varda by Agnès isn't exactly a "remake", but it is certainly redundant with The Beaches of Agnès, the exquisite 2008 memoir that found Varda taking stock of her life as she approached her 80th birthday. The focus isn't quite the same: that movie was much more about her feelings and personal life, while Varda by Agnès is more about her art; it is the difference between a memoir by a human who made films, and a memoir about filmmaking. But a lot of the material is mostly the same, even with slightly different emphases. This isn't to say that the new film lacks anything fresh: the second hour contains a great deal of footage of her 21st Century gallery installations, a major new outlet for her creative energies that hasn't received nearly the attention of her cinema. And this footage clearly shows the continuities in her interests and the moral themes and philosophical concerns that drove her in the last two decades of her life. Plus, she has the opportunity to reflect on her one major film in the intervening ten years, 2017's Faces Places, positioning it as the extension of her installation pieces as much as of her autobiographical documentaries.

Still, the bulk of the film really does feel like a victory lap through the highlights of a filmography that touches on a lot of things we already knew, or certainly could glean from watching the movies themselves. It is, mind you, a well-earned victory lap: the massive spike in Varda's popular reputation in the last several years (and really mostly around the release of Faces Places) came late enough into her career that this doesn't feel like reciting the canon, but providing a starting point for digging into her many films that came out in the gaps between Cléo, 1985's Vagabond, and 2000's The Gleaners and I. There's not a trace of ego involved: when Varda considers a courtyard full of posters from her films hanging in the breeze, she notes with some measure of quiet delight that they have been received with kindness, and there's an almost heartbreaking humility attached to this moment, as though she has no clue why she deserves such kindness, but is pleased to know it exists.

This is perhaps the biggest difference between Varda by Agnès and Gleaners or Beaches: those are both grappling with something personal, while this feels more like a deeply sincere thank you letter to her newly robust fanbase. Compare this to someone like Werner Herzog, who has responded to his memefication in the 21st Century by enthusiastically leaning into the cartoon excesses of his persona: Varda seems to take it as a grave responsibility to let us inside her head and her art, so that we don't lose sight of the messages and meanings of that art in our rush to celebrate cinephilia's favorite cuddly grandma with the adorable two-toned hair. Rather than make herself the star, she allows or even forces the movies to take the foreground over her own self, in part through the ample use of clips, in part by only talking about her personal life as needed to give those movies context.

If the result lacks the profound richness of Gleaners, Beaches, or Faces Places, it still remains an awfully lovely way to spend two hours. Varda's films so strongly reflect a worldview and a personality that the best way to learn about her is to attend as closely as we can to the films themselves, anyway. Varda by Agnès is as good a way to celebrate the existence of those films and the life of this filmmaker as you could want: it opens conversations rather than closes them, and it assures us that even with the woman Agnès gone, the filmmaker Varda remains to offer us 60 years worth of insights into humanity and the world, presented with a generosity of spirit and unblunted moral righteousness that no other filmography can match.