Interview

The House That Agnès Built

Joan Dupont

From Film Quarterly, Winter 2018, Volume 72, Number 2

I first met Agnès Varda a couple of decades ago, in 1998, at the opening of the Istanbul Film Festival. I was on the jury, and she was the honored guest. She arrived sleepy, suspended in time from some faraway place, and fell asleep at dinner. She doesn’t remember, but of course I do.

The next morning, she was up early, raring to visit the Bazaar and the Hagia Sophia; we ended up at a shop high above the city that sold ex-votos. Agnès swept up a small pile of the silvery tin eyes, arms, and legs, explaining that she had a collection. I happened upon an ear that turned out to be unique.

Oh, did Agnès love that ear, so much so that once outside the shop, I offered it to her. She asked if I knew how old she was, and I said no, suspecting she was a few years older than me, perhaps the same five years that separated me from my older sister who always wowed—and frightened—me a bit. Today, I have forgotten her age, our ages, despite knowing them all too well, suspended in a preferred disbelief.

At that time, Agnès was not easily recognized on the international scene, not yet the royal figure of today with her plum-colored crown and incisive comments. We knew about her and her New Wave history, but hardly her full scope as an artist; Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) would not be released until 2000.

One of those few immortals for whom one name will do, Agnès, with her high energy, velvet voice, and incisive verdicts, is forever young. Belgian-born, she grew up in Sète, a seaport town in the south of France and the site of La Pointe Courte (1955), her debut film, which made waves way before the New Wave. In the mid-1950s, she was already having a brilliant career as photographer at Jean Vilar’s Festival d’Avignon, site of the grand stage adventure of the 1950s, where the new “people’s theater” was being created in front of her lens.

fq.2018.72.2.55-unf01

Cléo (Corinne Marchand) walks through Paris in Cléo de 5 à 7.

In her first feature, Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962), the camera traced a young woman (Corinne Marchand) walking through Paris from 5 to 7 p.m., awaiting the news of the doctor’s report on her cancer exam. It would enjoy tremendous acclaim in the women’s film festivals of the early 1970s. Within its haunting portrayal, filmed in real time and in black and white, there is an interlude: Jean-Luc Godard (JLG) and Anna Karina appear in a short film-within-a-film in which JLG famously removed his dark glasses—for mere seconds—just for Agnès.

She has been called the Godmother of the New Wave, sometimes the Big Sister, even the Grandmother, but Agnès rides her own wave. She has never slowed down: a ceaseless creative force, she has been on the spot at historic moments. She never puts anything away for good, so old photos turn into films, and whatever she can’t use right away may turn up later in her short films, recycled with fresh invention. On a trip to Germany, the history of 4711 eau de cologne captivates her as much as the venerable cathedral and re-appears in her Agnès de ci de là Varda (Agnes Varda: From Here to There, 2012). She sees the world in a grain of sand—or in a heart-shaped potato. In her garden, she pays as much attention to a tree’s growth as to any honored guest.

In this house on the rue Daguerre in the fourteenth arrondissement, where she has lived since the 1950s, she raised children and tended cats, developed photos, cooked up movies and installations, filmed neighbors, plotted adventures, and received friends and famous artists, including at least one president of the Republic.

Antoine Bourseiller (who played the soldier in Cléo and was a grand figure in the world of theater) was the father of Varda’s daughter, Rosalie Varda. She raised Rosalie on her own at first, then with the filmmaker Jacques Demy, her husband, who came to live in the house in 1958. Their son, the actor and director Mathieu Demy, today lives in Los Angeles. Rosalie is the head of the Ciné-Tamaris production company, with offices on the premises.

After the success of his Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), Demy was put under contract in Hollywood to make Model Shop (1969), and the family moved to Los Angeles. Agnès, already busy with her own ventures, had learned of the jailing of Huey Newton in 1967 and got on a plane to Oakland, California where she made a 16mm film, Black Panthers. “I was there at the right moment,” she says. As she had been when she traveled to Cuba to shoot Salut les Cubains (1963), her compelling portrait of a triumphant Fidel Castro, the celebration and dancing in the streets that had followed the revolution. She also made Lions Love (Lions Love [… And Lies]) in 1969—a delirious fin-de-régime fantasy, her tribute to Pop Art featuring Andy Warhol’s Viva.1

Eventually Agnès and Jacques returned to the house on the rue Daguerre, a street still full of neighboring artisans and tradespeople. Daguerréotypes (1976) was Agnès’s close-up on this historic street that was home. And later, in this house, she cared for Demy throughout his final illness and made Jacquot de Nantes (1991), her film about his childhood, which was completed fifteen days after his death from AIDS in 1990.

Agnès, so at home in the world, still lives in this house full of memories, ever cooking up new dishes from stray images. Her mind on the move creates and recycles adventures of drifters, souvenirs, objects lost and found. Some may turn up in an installation at the Fondation Cartier, which, a few streets down the road, is the institution that has housed her work. En route between her house and the Fondation is the Montparnasse Cemetery, where Demy is buried and where Agnès plans to be buried with him.

On the rue Daguerre, Rosalie and a team of worker bees hum away at Ciné-Tamaris headquarters, located just on the other side of Agnès’s living space. Friends, children, and cats move freely through house and garden. Visitors may add a plant—or partake of her ratatouille and intense conversation, just as I do, while she presses chocolate cake and more tea on me. It’s been a big year. Agnès has been all over: an honorary Oscar and a Spirit Award in Hollywood, an honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes, and more honors rolling in since the triumph of Visages villages (Faces Places, 2017), made with the visual artist JR, who, with his dark glasses and playful ways, appears almost like a resurrection of JLG. No wonder, then, that the film’s denouement takes place in Rolle, Switzerland, where they have traveled to meet the master, Godard himself—who, despite their appointment, is not at home.

fq.2018.72.2.55-unf02

La serre du Bonheur/The greenhouse of Happiness at Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris, May 2018. Courtesy of Agnès Varda.

It has not been easy to find time for this interview, either. We met in May at the Galerie Nathalie Obadia, where Agnès exhibited her “Cabane de Cinéma: La serre du Bonheur,” a hothouse of sunflowers made out of film stock from Le bonheur (1965). Then it was time for the Cannes Film Festival, and everybody wanted her. Next came her ninetieth birthday, celebrated with family and grandchildren gathered from Paris and Los Angeles. A week later, we had a date at last, but somehow the DVD of Daguerréotypes she had given me refused to play on my machine!

Finally, the day arrives. Rosalie opens the door. Beautiful Rosalie! She will see about our tea as she sees about the house, the office, and, not least, her mother’s schedule.

And then we are in the garden, and here she is, somehow more compact than before, yet ever more Agnès—intuitive, funny, and also incisive, and so full of her own questions that, of a sudden, I had to wonder: Who is doing the interviewing?

She quickly zeroes in on her interviewer: “You mean you haven’t seen Daguerréotypes? You haven’t seen that many of my movies!” In a flash, though, the famous sharpness subsides and she talks about things on her mind: this generation of kids on the Internet, the visiting grandchildren who do not read. “I tried,” she says, rueful, for Agnès herself is certainly a reader. La Pointe Courte was inspired by William Faulkner’s Wild Palms. It is the film she made as an unknown, the one that Alain Resnais edited, the one he said he would have liked to have made himself.

Just as we finally settle down, Agnès mentions that people will be dropping by later. Friends? “Friends from cinema, people who are writing about me that I appreciate, but don’t read,” she adds with a laugh, and I wonder if I am one of them. We are friends, but she has so many. Never mind. We sit in the garden and have our tea.

Joan Dupont:
You were my introduction to French cinema. I came from New York to live in Nancy in the 1950s and saw movies like Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi [(Hands Off the Loot), 1954], with Jean Gabin, all in argot which I couldn’t understand.

Agnes Varda:
A period piece!

Dupont:
And then later, in Paris, I saw your Le bonheur, the first movie I could really understand. It made me cry.

Varda:
You were teaching?

Dupont:
No, back then, I was making babies. And the first film that moved me was Le bonheur. Not incidentally, the film is about a young working-class couple who picnic in the country on weekends, making love in an idyllic pastoral setting. One day, the husband meets another woman who looks like his wife and is just as happy with her. It made me suffer!

fq.2018.72.2.55-unf03

Le bonheur: “A beautiful summer fruit with a worm inside.”

Varda:
Why?

Dupont:
I took it personally: it had never before occurred to me that I was replaceable!

Varda:
Ah! I know why! You were right! You can put your tape recorder on now. [In fact, it was already running. I didn’t want to miss a word.]

It’s a tough one. Yes, we are each unique, but society makes us replaceable because we’re [simply] social functions. We work, we make babies, society runs smoothly. What hurts in this movie is the way the second wife does the same things the first wife did. Le bonheur is about the way society functions.

The movie is lyrical, with Mozart and the Île de France countryside of the Impressionists. To me, the film is like a beautiful summer fruit, seductive, a beautiful summer film—but you open it, and there’s a worm inside.

Dupont:
Did the film come from something personal in you?

Varda:
Anger! I had written a film, Les créatures, and presented it to the government film commission [l’avance sur recettes, which awards funding]. My producer, Mag Bodard, who had produced Jacques’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg and knew how successful Cléo had been, presented the film to them—which was rejected by the board.2

(Rosalie, by the kitchen, calls out to ask if we want anything more.)

Varda:
Rosa, it’s you?

Rosalie:
Yes.

Varda:
You want tea?

Rosalie:
No. Do you want more tea? I’m leaving the hot water.

Varda:
What are you doing now, working or resting?

Rosalie:
I’m working …

(With that, Agnès turns her attention back to me.)

Varda:
So, the producer gave me the news on a Friday and I was so mad I asked when the next commission meeting would take place; it was the following Tuesday. I said, “I’m proposing another film.” Every day on the rue Daguerre, in a neighborhood of workers, I saw artisans and their wives who took in sewing, modest couples who had no other ambition but to be happy and spend Sunday in the country. This idea was—for intellectuals who try to understand the meaning of life, for me who had made Cléo de 5 à 7—fascinating.

I wrote the script on a Friday. On Saturday, I cut and edited the text. I asked Jacques Demy, with whom I was living, to recopy it all for me. Sunday, we stayed in bed all morning, and he recopied the fresh version while I rewrote certain scenes and dialogue. Sunday night we rewrote the whole script, by hand. I didn’t keep that version, which was dumb of me.

Dupont:
How wonderfully supportive. He was a dear?

Varda:
Well, it was normal. We were in that room there. [She points upstairs.] Then, the next day, Monday, a girl typed up stencils of the script—remember [mimeograph] stencils? We gathered up twenty-seven copies along with a director’s letter of intention and synopsis, and on Tuesday evening, we delivered the whole package.

Dupont:
So, this became Le bonheur? It concerns a small family, a tight unit, where the man is married and has kids with a pretty blonde; then, he chooses another blonde. He tells his wife he is even happier now. She answers that she is happy for him, then disappears—and is found drowned in a pond!

Varda:
A small universe! But the concept is interesting: love is not exclusive, it can be multiple. Our society doesn’t let us express this, but the impulse to love is strong when we’re young.3 He continues to love the first one, but in our society, what he wants is not possible. His wife seems to agree, but then … she disappears, and slips into a pond.4

He remakes his life and has the same quality of life. It’s possible, human—except it’s amoral. Society won’t accept [it]. The story is an old story with sweet scenes and scenery, and so, the film slipped by just like that!

Dupont:
So, it was funded! It’s a film that still hurts.

Varda:
Yes, yes, it hurts. The movie was a success, and a scandal, and did well. We got the Golden Bear at Berlin, and I still wonder how, after La Pointe Courte, I wrote this movie out of the blue! Perhaps because of anger, my anger against that commission that turned me down!

fq.2018.72.2.55-unf04

Thérèse Liotard (left) and Valérie Mairesse (right) in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t.

Dupont:
It’s interesting to jump ahead from Le bonheur, which to me is a film about a woman who can’t express herself, in 1964, to L’une chante l’autre pas [One Sings, the Other Doesn’t] in 1976. In contrast to the theme of marriage in the first, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is a story of two friends, played by Valérie Mairesse and Thérèse Liotard, and their evolution in 1962–77, during the women’s movement. It took a long time for women to come out and express themselves, didn’t it?

Varda:
Le bonheur is about the duty of being a woman … but women didn’t come out just like that. It was an age when women reflected; there were collectives, demonstrations and trials, the petition in favor of abortion. You weren’t in France then?

Dupont:
Yes, but I was in the suburbs.

Varda:
But you were working! You were having babies. One of the songs in the movie is “When you are almost a mother …”

Dupont:
Yes, the women’s movement certainly fought for that recognition of women’s labor in the home. But One Sings isn’t just about militancy: there’s compassion.

Varda:
There were those who said the movie was too feminist, others not feminist enough. Debates! And then those who said, “You didn’t dare do a story about lesbians!” But that wasn’t the subject of my film! One woman needs money for an abortion, the other finds it for her friend and gets in trouble with her parents, and then her friend gives her man the money to help him—he’s a weak man and he kills himself.

fq.2018.72.2.55-unf05

A feminist manifestation in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t.

Dupont:
That’s so violent, it’s a shock.

Varda:
She has to rebuild herself after this trauma, and she does, from victim to activist—she becomes a militant feminist, while the little rebel transmits feminist messages with her songs. It was an age when women organized. There were marches and manifestos in favor of abortion.5 It was a political act that provoked reactions. Women were waking up. Women made movies, made so many films …

Dupont:
Like Nelly Kaplan, who made La fiancée du pirate [A Very Curious Girl] in 1969?

Varda:
Yes, that was a good movie—with Bernadette Lafont. She was very angry, Nelly! And Mais qu’est ce qu’elles veulent? [But What Do They Want?, 1976] was a terrific film by Coline Serreau.6 And Patricia Mazuy, who worked with me. I waited, I watched the others’ movies.

But the idea of L’une chante is that there are different ways to be militant. [The composer] Pomme’s way was more fun. It was an age of great singers: Georges Brassens, Leo Ferré. I wrote militant, feminist words for the film’s songs. It was important to be militant with humor, because we were called mal baisées [“frustrated hags”] and râleuses [“hysterical harpies”]. My movie came at just the right moment and was a big hit. People tell me today that the movie gave them courage.

Dupont:
And what does Rosalie say? The film is dedicated to her, and she appeared in it on her eighteenth birthday.

Varda:
She’s in the last scene; she is the face of the future. And Mathieu, who was four, is in the movie wearing his Zorro costume!

Dupont:
You were what the French call a fille-mère: Rosalie was born out of wedlock. That was very brave for the time.

Varda:
I like to say I was the fille-père, the papa. We didn’t live together with the father. My mother was great about it. She said: if you want a baby that way, that’s your decision.

Dupont:
You were an adventuress!

Varda:
An adventuress, yes, and a radical feminist. I know why. My mother had five children: two older than I was and two younger, so I was the middle one, and independent. I was radical and independent.

Dupont:
And you weren’t angry?

Varda:
Yes, I was angry! I took off from home, disappeared for two months, without any money—and gave them no news. My bourgeois father didn’t want to tell the police to look for me because he was afraid of scandal. When I learned his social position was what counted [most], I wasn’t angry with him. I thought, he’s protecting his bourgeois position … but he gave me my freedom, my strength.

Dupont:
We need strength, and stamina. And sometimes, confrontation can be good! A strong father to stand up to—that can give strength. I remember rebelling against my father, and leaving home, too.

Varda:
That led me to cinema. I took photos of everything you can imagine: public meetings, weddings. I became a photographer. That was my job and my desire. I can take you to my photo studio across the way if you like.

fq.2018.72.2.55-unf06

Varda directing La Pointe Courte in 1954.

Dupont:
You didn’t just make beautiful images, you did more. After all, who thought of making a movie out of Faulkner?

Varda:
Wild Palms impressed me, and I liked the idea of making a movie as disturbing as Faulkner’s work. I thought it [La Pointe Courte] was like a poem to put in a drawer. Alain [Resnais] said, “Keep the film as it is, and show it to André Bazin,” who chose it for Cannes. And my mother paid Le Vox, a movie house in Cannes, to show it.

I was twenty-six years old. Thirty people showed up—and the Cinémathèque took the movie. They saw something new and radical.

Dupont:
What was your life in L.A. like?

Varda:
After the fabulous reception of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques was invited by Columbia to make a film [Model Shop]. I loved him, so I was with him. And I fell in love with Los Angeles. It was the time of the hippies, peace and love, love-ins at parks, flower children, baskets of cherries, cakes, guitars. I adored that, got right into it, and met the idols: Andy Warhol and Viva. I made Lions Love, about a threesome who played in the nude.7 What got me was the feeling of those times: sex and politics.

Dupont:
You were quick to catch on!

Varda:
Yes, I knew I had to go fast; I knew that five years later they would all be square. I seized the moment.

And that’s how I got to the Black Panthers. My friend Tom Luddy worked at the cinematheque in Oakland and had lots of friends and knew all about the Black Panthers.8 “Huey Newton was jailed! We must free Huey Newton!” Now!

I took the plane [on a] Sunday. I filmed by myself with a 16mm camera they lent me. I got into the prison by saying I was from French TV. Nobody stopped me.

Before, it had been whites writing on blacks. This time, it was the blacks. Eldridge Cleaver! I filmed them all—and they were all nice to me.

fq.2018.72.2.55-unf07

Black Panthers (1968)

fq-2018-72-2-55-unf08.png

Black Panthers (1968)

Dupont:
You had guts.

Varda:
I knew it couldn’t last. They didn’t have the infrastructure, so the movement fell apart. I filmed at just the right moment, the moment of consciousness and action. They went off to Cuba, they went off in different directions, it broke up quickly.

Dupont:
And you, too, went to Cuba and made Salut les Cubains [1963], a short, and took that photo of Castro that I saw?

Varda:
In 1962, Chris Marker made ¡Cuba Sí! and he said I had to go to Cuba. So I went. And I understood I couldn’t film, the camera was too obtrusive, but I could take photos and film the photos. That way, we could recompose [and] refilm photos with music to be able to match film. I was alone, I went everywhere, spoke Spanish.

Dupont:
When did you learn English?

Varda:
When we were in L.A. … I watched a lot of TV. I learned English, and began to speak well. In any case, I understood them and they understood me.

Dupont:
You and Demy were both busy.

Varda:
Jacques was busy writing and filming; Rosalie was nine, in a Beverly Hills public school, which was great. We only had Rosalie. Mathieu was born in 1972 when we came back. [There were fifteen years between the two children.]

Later, when I made Mur Murs (1980), the L.A. County Museum had nothing [about the city’s murals]. We had to do a search to find the muralists. I was fascinated by the desperate side, the underside, of L.A. [as] revealed by their stories. I loved making that film.

Dupont:
Each generation in the United States has a dream about going west.

Varda:
A kind of gold rush, and then, the letdown. And it pleased me because in L.A. it’s as if the sun is out all the time and I wanted to film the shadowy side, its “sans soleil,” like the title of the film by [Chris] Marker. Each time, I look for a different kind of cinematic choice.…

And what brought you to France? Did you come because of Monsieur Dupont?

Dupont:
Yes, but not only! Now, about Le bonheur: the film is beautiful, yes, but it has an undertow. It’s not just about what society permits, but about a relationship in which only the man is free to double his pleasure. What if it had been the woman who found a lover just as tall, dark, and handsome? Would the husband have been so passive?

Varda:
In this film, there are seventy-five different possibilities. Lion’s Love was one [version]: a love triangle. But I couldn’t propose this film any other way: this is a happy couple with children, not poor, not rich, they love nature, love their kids, he works in carpentry, not a violent milieu. I took a basic situation, minimal, to tell a simple story. He falls for somebody else who looks like his wife.

Desire is human, it exists, so what do we do with it? In civilized society, we hide it. This man is amoral; he doesn’t see how he hurts anybody; he continues to be nice to his wife and children, thinking he can simply add to his pleasure.

Dupont:
But she feels betrayed. After all, she is betrayed!

Varda:
There’s a moment that is ambivalent: we don’t know if she slipped, or meant to drown; we will never know.

Dupont:
But surely you know?

Varda:
No! I think when we write a script, we mustn’t know. The characters have to have autonomy. There are options, and the dreadful moral is: we are each unique, but replaceable. Society functions if each one is in his/her place. It was credible in the film because the kids are young, they can accept another mother. I did everything to make this story credible. I put all the conditions on my side. It’s a utopist fable.

Dupont:
We’re trapped! The wife and mother is doing her job so well that she can be replaced by another blond wife/mother without much fuss. Her husband and kids adopt the new one without a fuss!

Varda:
Because it’s a film trap! We had big reactions—in the United States, too. Also, it was my first film in color and we did research to bring out beauty, to evoke a Utopia. It’s not realistic.

You’ve made me jump between Le bonheur and feminism … [but] my most important movie was Sans toit ni loi [Vagabond, 1985].

fq.2018.72.2.55-unf09

Sandrine Bonnaire and Agnès Varda on location for Vagabond.

Dupont:
It also has a lot to say about women. You created a single woman, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, who is alone on the road. This is the film of yours that bewitched me with the mystery of Mona, Bonnaire’s character, with a ghost of a smile on her face.

Varda:
I had a friend who had a house in the south, and I was interested in homeless people. So I went down there with my car and I’d pick up homeless people. They were mostly men, but there were a few women. And I noticed the importance we give to cleanliness. We can deal with the poor, but they’d better be clean, and smell okay! This emphasis on cleanliness bothered me.

I made the movie and, as in Cléo, it was the structure that counted: this time, the structure is made of thirteen tracking shots, always from right to left. A girl walks, a girl on the road, she walks, she walks in the country, through woods, through villages.

Then, there is the idea of rape, that’s what happens on the road. I rubbed it out, just as she did …

Dupont:
Yes, there’s violence in the film.

Varda:
I had seen À nos amours (Maurice Pialat, 1983), Sandrine Bonnaire’s first film. Sandrine was so spontaneous, and in my movie, she was amazing.

Dupont:
Yes, she was—and Pialat was furious about losing her, as it were, to you. I had lunch with him and Gérard Depardieu on the set of Sous le soleil du Satan [Under the Sun of Satan, Maurice Pialat, 1987; also with Bonnaire], and all he could do was grumble!

Varda:
I know, and she loved Pialat!

Dupont:
In Vagabond, I wondered what she was running from. Perhaps from that abusive household in which her character was trapped in À nos amours! I imagine her marching, with stubborn determination, to the beat of “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” her destination. 9 And the characters she meets on the road! You gave the marvelous Yolande Moreau her first role on-screen.

Varda:
I needed help on an exhibit in Avignon and had met Yolande doing her one-woman show, a violent and funny street performance. I invited her to join the film. Vagabond is a complete film on a social subject. I couldn’t get anybody to produce it, so we [Ciné-Tamaris] produced it. And it turned out to be our only success, with over 1 million entries.

Other films I made were loved but made no money; I never earned money for producers. I was always looking to be where the action was!

(Just then, guests arrive, so we meet again a week later, when, after a quick tea in the kitchen, we move across the street to Agnès’s studio. This is a suite of rooms stacked high with the history of Agnès, photographer—a world in black and white inhabited by friends from the past. The argentite [silver gelatin] photos are not merely beautiful. Her portraits haunt, not only because so many of her subjects are great artists who have since died, but because she somehow caught or cast them in a mood, an otherworldliness, because of her unique mise-en-scène. She gives me a tour.)

fq.2018.72.2.55-unf10

The two Alains: Alain Robbe-Grillet (right) and Alain Resnais (left), without his shoes.  Courtesy of Agnes Varda.

Varda:
Here’s a portrait of Louis Aragon and Elsa [Triolet], in love, here’s Salvador Dali in the 1950s in Ibiza, Brassai in the 1960s; photos from China in the 1950s. And my potato series: when I did Les glaneurs, the heart-shaped potato inspired me. Me, too, I glean like the women who plant potatoes in the field. I kept the old potatoes and they sprouted …

Look, here’s Resnais sitting alongside Alain Robbe-Grillet, the two Alains; one in white socks, the other in black socks.

Dupont:
And no shoes! He was handsome, Resnais.

Varda:
But physically a bit stiff, very official. And here is beautiful Rosa, pregnant to the gills, and a small bird dead on the beach. I made the film Ulysses (1982) out of this photo. Look at the photo I took of Le Corbusier’s terrace in the Cité Radieuse in Marseille in the 1950s. It all just fell into place so well that I made a three-minute movie later. … Sometimes things done spontaneously bring surprises, sometimes nature casts just the right shadow, like the people who gathered on that terrace.

I mix periods, and I’m free to mix and to think. And to think of nothing as well. I meditate visually.

Dupont:
Tell me about your method.

Varda:
I started as a photographer in the 1950s, and when I did Cléo in 1961, I stopped [photography] for twenty years. Then, I went back in 2005 and mixed the old argentique [silver gelatin] with the digital. I like to do that. I first worked with the big cameras, then, smaller cameras; now, with cell phones, et cetera, it’s become democratic, which is fine, but it changed everything—because a photograph has to be original.

(We leave the studio and move back across the street to the house.)

Varda:
This hall separates my house from Ciné-Tamaris, which is completely independent. I made a hole in the wall, see?

(We tour the production quarters, where I discover a suite of small rooms filled with intense computer activity.)

Varda:
We have apprentices working in this room, and here [she opens the door to the next room] this is the summit [and] here’s Rosalie, Rosalie does a lot.

(When we return to her living room, she chooses a small couch and I settle across from her.)

Dupont:
You’ve had three lives: photographer, filmmaker, visual artist.

Varda:
It’s more complicated; they have overlapped. I remained a photographer when I became a filmmaker. Like the photo that I took on Le Corbusier’s terrace. I always wondered who those people were, did they know each other? I saw them for ten seconds back then, and twenty years later, made a small film [from the photograph].

In each snapshot is the mystery of a film that doesn’t exist. I kept the relationship between photography and film, two ways of capturing life. And twenty-eight years after the photo of Ulysse in 1954, I made a half-hour film [Ulysses, 1982] inspired by that dead goat on the beach and the child.

So, there’s an inner dialogue between photo, film, and a kind of memory of present time. What happened? Maybe that child was abandoned? This is how I express my deepest reflections. I travel across times zones and different ways of thinking, which is interesting for me. At the end of Les plages d’Agnès [The Beaches of Agnès, 2008], I say: “I am remembering as I live.” I live intensely.

My creative thought has multiple expressions: photo, cinema, installations—above all, imagination—and several ways of perceiving. I have a photographer’s perception. I write. I write my films. I mix period [history] with fantasy. And I’m free to think like that. Or about nothing at all. I am remembering as I am living.

And there’s also visual mediation. I have great powers of concentration. I can be in the midst of life, here with my cats. … Here’s one. This is Paille [“straw”]. Come up here. … She likes me best lying down; when I’m on my feet, she doesn’t recognize me. She’s my heating pad.

Today, we are in a situation with the migrants; we have a roof over our heads and we think about them, but we do nothing—just as when we made Loin du Vietnam [Far from Vietnam, 1967] and wanted to do something but couldn’t.10 So, we are unhappy witnesses.

When I made Visages villages, I decided not to ask the people we interviewed whom they voted for, or any of that. We limited the experience—and it became rich. They confided in us because it became a conversation, not a Q and A.

It put them in a situation to reflect, express; we wanted to know what they think, who they were. So we had a dialogue, a space to provoke imagination to find words to express ideas. The man who ran a garage who talked about putting Ping-Pong balls on the sheep’s horns had such funny ideas and found solutions. We were there at the right time.

fq.2018.72.2.55-unf11

Varda with one of her cats. Courtesy of Ciné-Tamaris.

Dupont:
Isn’t that who you are: somebody at the right place at the right time?

Varda:
We are sensitive, good listeners, which makes it possible to discover the right moment.

Dupont:
You’re always conscious of that?

Varda:
When I made Daguerréotypes on rue Daguerre, years ago, I spoke to my neighbors, the shop people. Commerce has its own vocabulary, words that don’t mean much. For example, the butcher always said, “It’s because of the weather,” no matter what. One day, a woman came into the shop and said, “My husband had a heart attack,” and he said: “It’s the weather!” It’s that kind of dialogue—words that mean nothing, and nobody listens.

This interested me. There’s an American university in upstate New York where the departments of Documentary, Sociology, and Language invited me; all three departments paid my trip. It was as if there were several doors, entranceways. And my cinema, too, has several entranceways. There is utopia [and] fiction, as in Le bonheur and One Sings, both social proposals that offer a moment of reflection.

Dupont:
Vagabond is no utopia!

Varda:

Perhaps, but there is a kind of long demonstration of how things take place in life. Without dialogue, there’s no life. She [Bonnaire, as the vagrant girl] refuses to exchange with the people along her path. She refuses the hippy; she is anti-hippy. And she dies from solitude—and the cold—from her refusal of dialogue, of human exchange.

Dupont:
It is my favorite of all your films! I can see it again and again, and I love the characters she meets on the road.

Varda:
It’s strong, because her negative energy makes it hard to help her. But when she goes off, I can’t judge her, I can just follow her on the road. I put myself somewhat in the place of the woman played by Macha Méril, the tree doctor who takes care of trees that die. She meets up with her and takes her for a ride. What else can she do? She’s like the rest of us: we’re limited, we can just offer understanding and kindness. Then she goes home and lives her life.

Each film has its [own] treatment, tone, color. … In L’une chante we talk about freeing women, how women didn’t dare speak up.

Now, this recent business about that producer …

Dupont:
Harvey Weinstein?

Varda:
Harvey freed our tongues, but it’s a slow process. In the work world, women are harassed constantly. It’s a horror—on trains, metros, all the time. How about the kind of thing that women hear every day, like “You have a great ass?”

It’s not hard to free actresses. Feminists have always fought. Now we see the problem of parity. For example, how come there are not as many women as men on the Cannes selection committee? I’m happy that I was the first [in France] to make a movie, L’une chante, with as many women as men.

Here in France, we now have many women directors and technicians, and many men [who are] filmmakers take women as DPs [cinematographers]. So, I’m optimistic.

When I won my Spirit Award in Hollywood, I felt: it’s changing, it’s moving. After seventy years in cinema, I see change.

Epilogue

We talked of many things, but not of many other things. Whatever happened to her heroines, for instance? To Thérèse, the one who does not sing in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, or to Mona, with her dance of death in Vagabond? Where is she marching and why? And what about Claire, the wife in Le bonheur, who believed that she was perfectly happy until she found out that she had been replaced?

Is each of us women truly unique, the only potato shaped like a heart in the field of potatoes? Or are we irreplaceable, or even multiple? As special as that heart-shaped potato may be, it is merely a potato after all. The themes of women who do badly, of women who falter, of triangulations and betrayals are ever-present but unremarked.

In Agnès Varda’s film world, characters lead parallel lives that may connect (as the two friends do in L’une chante) or clash (as in the rape in Sans toit ni loi). Her films have mysterious symmetries and asymmetries, which their titles reflect (Mur murs; Sans toit ni loi; Visages villages). This bent for formal structures may have its roots in her attraction to Le Nouveau Roman (“the new novel”) of the 1950s, the literary breakthrough created by Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

I am left with the vision of that photo I spied in her studio of the two Alains: Robbe-Grillet alongside Resnais, both key figures in her career—respectively, her first editor and her compère in the Rive Gauche group—both caught in a melancholy moment that rests unexplained. It is the way she sees things: here were these men who were really important, her patron saints, and she has frozen them. It is her fancy. They look so haunted there, in her studio, her kingdom. Agnès, who still mulls over a lifetime of contrasts and connections, invents new ways to reinvent them all, and serves up fresh fare, cinematic and culinary, in her house on the rue Daguerre.

Notes

1.All sorts of characters pop up in this film, including director Shirley Clarke and actor Eddy Constantine, playing versions of themselves.
2.Varda did finally make Les créatures. Starring Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, it was released in 1966 to mixed reviews. Writing in the New Yorker recently, Richard Brody called it her “lost sci-fi romance.”
3.The protagonist, François, is played by Jean-Claude Drouot, who was the star of Thierry la Fronde, a popular French television serial for kids. The wife, Thérèse, is played by his actual wife, Claire Drouot, and the on-screen couple’s small children are the actors’ own children.
4.In fact, it is not clear whether she slips or drowns herself.
5.In 1971, Varda was one of the women who signed the famous “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts” drafted by Simone de Beauvoir, which led to the ground-breaking law under Health Minister Simone Veil, legalizing abortion in 1975.
6.The documentary’s title is derived from Freud’s famous question, “What Do Women Want?”
7.Lions Love stars Viva along with Gerome Ragni and James Rado, creators of Hair. [Editor’s note: a selection of Varda’s early films, all restored, is available in the United States as a box set from Criterion Classics.]
8.Tom Luddy, director of the Telluride Film Festival, was then showing films in Berkeley. He went on to become the head of the Pacific Film Archive and then to work in production at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Productions. He is credited as a camera assistant on Black Panthers.
9.“I Have a Rendezvous with Death” is the title of a famous poem by Alan Seeger, a young American poet who was killed in World War I, the “Great War,” while fighting with the French Foreign Legion. He was the uncle of Pete Seeger. I interpret Bonnaire’s character as heroic, too.
10.Loin du Vietnam was a collective work of short films, made under the direction of Chris Marker; Varda was supposed to contribute. With contributions by JLG, Joris Ivens, Alain Resnais, Claude Lelouch, and William Klein, finally, there was no room for Varda’s sequence (though she appears credited as a codirector).
© 2018 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.