Agnès and Rosalie
For filmmakers today, Agnès Varda is an example of courage and determination. At the age of 27, when she knew no one and had seen only a handful of films, she dared to direct La Pointe Courte (1956), her first feature film. A precursor of the Nouvelle Vague, a friend of Resnais, Marker and Godard, and married to Jacques Demy, Varda was a fighter in every sense of the word. At the age of 75, she even became a burgeoning visual artist exhibiting her video installations at the most prestigious institutions. She left us five years ago and we miss her dearly. Producer and one of Agnès’ main collaborators, her daughter, Rosalie Varda, is now taking up the torch. In an interview with Frédéric Bonnaud, director of la Cinémathèque française – which is devoting an exhibition to the director, entitled Viva Varda! (with the support of CHANEL) – she discusses her mother’s Hollywood years, her feminist combat and her belated but meaningful fame. At a time when an expanded edition of the book Varda by Agnès – originally published by Les Cahiers du cinéma in 1994 and now covering the artist’s entire oeuvre in 576 pages is coming out – they also talked about “Mémoire d’Images”, a project supported by CHANEL that will digitise Agnès Varda’s rushes so a new generation can be inspired by this extraordinary artist.
DID YOU ALWAYS KNOW THAT YOUR PARENTS WERE FILMMAKERS?
With Agnès, we always watched a lot of films, cinema was always present. For example, she took me to the Cinémathèque to see Alice Guy’s films (born in France in 1873, Alice Guy is the first female director in the history
of cinema, she was also the first woman to set up a film production company in the United States in 1910, long before Hollywood existed, ed. note). But I think it was when I saw Les Demoiselles de Rochefort that I really understood Jacques was a director. I went to see all their films, but that’s the first real memory of my parents being linked to cinema. My first memory of an Agnès film – I must have been seven – is Opéra-Mouffe (a 1958 short film and report about a pregnant woman in the rue Mouffetard district of Paris, ed. note): not exactly a kid’s film! After that, we all went to the United States, where we stayed for two years. I really remember the shooting of Model Shop, the studio, and how proud I was to see the “Jacques Demy” plaque on my father’s office door.
DID YOU EXPERIENCE THE FAMOUS “NEW HOLLYWOOD” FIRST-HAND?
Yes, I lived Hollywood in 1967-68 with Jacques and Agnès. Even though it was Jacques who was called in after the international triumphs of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, the Hollywood studio bosses suddenly had two filmmakers from the French Nouvelle Vague to help them understand what was happening in Europe, at a time when they were going through a profound crisis in their home-grown cinema. Two for the price of one! Jacques and Agnès were the legendary Nouvelle Vague couple. Every film student wanted to meet them… that’s how they met George Lucas! Our house on Alpine Drive (in Beverly Hills) was a gateway to Europe and a refuge for exiles: Miloš Forman, Roman Polanski, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret and Catherine Deneuve... They all passed through. And then you’d bump into Debbie Reynolds or Rock Hudson at the supermarket, that was Hollywood!
JACQUES DEMY WAS HIRED BY COLUMBIA PICTURES. BUT WHAT ABOUT AGNÈS VARDA?
As soon as she arrived, Agnès who didn’t speak a word of English – wanted to shoot, pick up a camera and go out on the streets. It was the Vietnam War, the musical, political and cultural revolution, and of course the sexual revolution! And then the discovery of drugs... Neither Jacques nor Agnès ever really took them, but there were ‘artistic cigarettes’ everywhere! It was such a culture shock that it took them a few months to absorb it. With his American film, Model Shop, Jacques did the opposite of what the American studio system expected of him: he gave them a small, innovative, very Nouvelle Vague film, when they were hoping for a blockbuster musical. It was professional suicide. After the failure of the film, he gave them a road-movie with Jim Morrison! Easy Rider before its time... With no result, of course. For her part, Agnès shot in a much more flexible way, almost fly on the wall.
THE RESULT BEING LIONS LOVE...
Lions Love... (and Lies) is the concentration of an era, with Agnès’ American twin, the great filmmaker Shirley Clarke, who she brought from New York to play her on screen. Viva (the lead actress), who had just arrived from Warhol’s Factory, and her two sidekicks, the stars of the scandalous musical Hair, struggled to remember the address where they were shooting, they were so out of it! The shoot was exhausting... But for Agnès, it was more of a psychedelic experience than a professional one, it really was a trip. So, she was less disappointed by the commercial indifference than Jacques. Something new was happening in American society and she was there to film it, as well if not better than the Americans. With Lions Love... (and Lies) and Black Panthers (a documentary about the demonstrations in support of Huey P. Newton, a black activist, in Oakland, ed. note), she really captured the zeitgeist.
SHE HAD A GIFT FOR THAT...
Catching the zeitgeist was Agnès’ genius. She did it with Jean Vilar and Gérard Philipe’s Théâtre National Populaire, but also with Cuba, capturing the hope of a new revolution with Salut les Cubains. Cléo from 5 to 7 encapsulates the streets of the Nouvelle Vague, Daguerréotypes, the rue Daguerre in 1975 and the twilight of neighbourhood life. And of course, The Gleaners and I (which deals with over-consumption and ecology, ed. note), which is really typical of a documentary film released at exactly the right time.
WAS SHE AN ARDENT FEMINIST WHEN SHE CAME BACK FROM LOS ANGELES?
I think she’d always been one, even before the movement existed. Agnès always wanted to be free, going against her father and his bourgeois, patriarchal values. She broke away from her family at a very early age, bought her first camera and then her working instrument, the rue Daguerre with her father’s money in 1951. She even moved in with a woman, the artist Valentine Schlegel! She took everything in her stride. When she returned from the United States in 1969, things were different, her feminism became part of the collective. Agnès helped women all her life. When she returned to France, her film Nausicaa, about the dictatorship of the Greek colonels, was censored. The film disappeared at the behest of the French government, and she never finished it. It was at the same time as her commitment to feminism, and there were endless militant meetings on rue Daguerre, with Jacques there too. They even lent their house for illegal abortions – they really were a couple on a crusade!
HER FILM ONE SINGS, THE OTHER DOESN’T LOOKS BACK AT THESE COMBATIVE YEARS.
Yes, with the strong idea of women helping each other. Before, Agnès was the only female director, the only woman surrounded by a bunch of men, like their Nouvelle Vague friends Rivette and Godard. But in the early 70s, she met Nelly Kaplan, Coline Serreau, Marguerite Duras, and the woman who became her close friend, Chantal Akerman. She helped her with I, You, He, She. She saw her as a radical little sister. Chantal was very young, and she felt less isolated: the next generation was there. It was a time of growing awareness of sisterhood and the discovery of collective commitment. At the end of One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, Agnès’ voice-over says, referring to Marie, my young female character: “It won’t be simpler, but it will be clearer.” The stakes are better known now. Including that of having a child, Mathieu, at the age of 45: at the time, this was by no means a foregone conclusion! In a famous TV interview from the 1970s, my little brother Mathieu wanders into Agnès’ study in the middle of an interview and she says: “Well, children often bother us, but you have to accept it, that’s the way it is. When I watch an interview with a male filmmaker in his study, I always wonder who’s looking after his children!” And then there were the great female friendships, like with Delphine Seyrig, and that was also new for her, to see that she could count on such a well-known actress, the Lilac Fairy from Peau d’Âne no less! It was a very collective and lively period. Even if someone like Delphine paid a high price for it, by being marginalised.
HOW DID SHE VIEW THOSE YEARS OF COMBAT?
For One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, the technical team was almost made up of equal numbers of women and that was 1976! So, it was already possible... But from the 1990s onwards, Agnès categorically refused to go to women’s film festivals, which was not always well perceived. As did Chantal Akerman, for that matter. They both felt that it was no longer their place; they were filmmakers, full stop. At the end of her life, Agnès felt that she had done her bit, that she had led her fight and that it was up to young people to continue, in an open, plural, joyful feminism, and certainly not in opposition to men. Agnès died aged 91, so you could say she was a feminist for eighty years! But in the later period of her life, she felt that she should only express herself through her art: the period of political statements and petitions was over for her.
HOW DOES VAGABOND FIT INTO THIS?
It’s the culmination and the end of this feminist cycle. After that came Jacques’ death, and art as the work of mourning. And finally, the self-portrait period and the many exhibitions of an “old filmmaker, young visual artist” at the age of 75. But Vagabond, with Macha Méril’s character representing her in the film, approaches a revolt even greater than her own, to a girl’s pointless flight against the world. The Mona in the film (played by Sandrine Bonnaire) is both far from Agnès and yet not so far. Agnès knows her, understands her and can tell her story, with empathy but without psychology. It’s a masterpiece. A million tickets sold, and it marked the end of a cycle of militancy and combat.
THEN CAME THE PERIOD OF SELF-PORTRAITS WITH THE GLEANERS AND I…
Yes, she had this brilliant idea of involving herself in the film, with her old lady’s body. It really was a new departure, a return to documentary and also a new form of militancy, both towards life, with her praise for recycling, and even a certain form of degrowth, and towards cinema, with her learning the possibilities of a new tool, those famous little digital cameras, or ‘DVs’ as they were called at the time. It was also the first of her self-portraits.
A GENRE SHE PRACTISED TO THE END. A BIT LIKE REMBRANDT...
Yes, she who spent her life in museums... we both did an interview in front of Rembrandt’s series of self-portraits in Vienna. The Beaches of Agnès (2008) was originally a project by her assistant, Didier Rouget. As no one had ever thought of making a film about her, she was rather happy. Then she got hold of it and decided to make the film herself. To pass on something about her life to her children and grandchildren, at the age of 80, under her absolute control, of course. But her real challenge was not to recount her memories or build her own statue: it was to make a film that could hold itself and continue to invent cinema, with a whole system of echoes and reminders, like with an art installation. In the meantime, the whirlwind of exhibitions had begun. A few days before she died, she was still working on her final exhibition, at the Chaumont estate.
HOW DID THAT ALL START?
With the Venice Biennale and the Patatutopia installation, in 2003, with Agnès in her Mrs Potato costume! It was a direct sequel, but in a different form, to the potatoes in The Gleaners and I. And after with “L’Île et Elle,” the big monographic exhibition in Paris, in 2006, at the invitation of Hervé Chandès. This one, we really thought and produced it together.
HOW DID YOU COME TO WORK TOGETHER?
Working with Agnès, was a carefully considered decision. I gave up my job as a costume designer and learnt how to run a company, even though I knew nothing about it, in order to become her ‘other half’ and to relieve her of as many practical problems as possible – before that she did absolutely everything herself – so she could devote herself solely to her art and not to the acrobatic management of Ciné-Tamaris. This implied a certain letting go on her part, which she hated. But she accepted it and concentrated solely on her work as an artist from 2006 onwards.
WAS SHE HAPPY WITH HER BELATED FAME? BEING RECOGNISED IN THE STREET, BEING APPROACHED BY PEOPLE...
Yes, very much so. First of all, she was happy not to be alone, to be able to share and to be surrounded by the great team at Ciné-Tamaris. Because Agnès was not a loner. Unlike Jacques, she loved being part of a community and being protected by a clan that allowed her to make her projects. She was on the cover of the first ever Interview magazine, chosen by Warhol himself, in 1969. We came full circle in 2018, when she was 90! People stopped her in the street and thanked her for her work and for being who she was. She was very touched by that. Because she’d finally become a reference for her work as a filmmaker. She’d spent her entire life fighting to make films on a shoestring, and now she was finally getting recognition from her peers.
SHE HAS BEEN SHOWERED WITH AWARDS…
She won an Honorary César in 2001, an Honorary Palme d’Honneur at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Honorary Award in 2017. But fortunately, in addition to her Honorary awards, she’d won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize in 1965 for Le Bonheur in Berlin and above all the Golden Lion in Venice Film Festival in 1985 for Vagabond. And the César Award for Best Film Documentary for The Beaches of Agnès in 2009.
HOW DID SHE MEET JR FOR HIS FILM, FACES, PLACES?
At my initiative. I called him even though I didn’t know him and suggested he meet Agnès because I wanted her to have projects, born out of encounters, for as long as possible. As he’s curious and intelligent, he accepted and came for tea. Two days later, Agnès went to visit his studio and came across an enlarged version of one of her self-portraits. She was delighted, she was having fun, and it was love at first sight! They spoke the same language perfectly, without necessarily knowing each other’s work. This meeting was very important for Agnès because, thanks to him, she never left the present and the joy of working. He never thought about how old she was, and when she was with him, she forgot about her aches and the fact she couldn’t ride her moped without crashing! The film went round the world, and she was busy creating until her last breath. For her, being alive meant creating. And I never had any regrets about deciding to work with her, because I had such a special relationship with my mother. During those thirteen years, we had total complicity, and I understood how tender our unusual working partnership was. Steven Spielberg once said to her, “I saw The Gleaners again two days ago and I don’t know how to do what you do...” She simply answered that she’d never have been able to make E.T.!
DID AGNÈS AND GABRIELLE CHANEL EVER MEET?
They did meet, Agnès told me, and they shared the same passion for freedom. And both had career paths that were neither easy nor straightforward. Like Gabrielle Chanel, Agnès sought independence from a very early age. She wanted to live her life her way, not adapt to society; she wanted to be in control, without concessions, so that she would never stop shaping her own life.
TODAY, CHANEL IS YOUR PARTNER IN A MAJOR HERITAGE TRANSFER PROJECT.
The link with CHANEL happened notably thanks to Virginie Viard. CHANEL is supporting Ciné-Tamaris in its “Mémoire d’Images” project: digitising and then making available sixty hours of rushes from The Gleaners and I, on a dedicated platform for film schools, so that a new generation of young filmmakers can practise editing with Agnès’ images. This documentary material will stop being a frozen archive and will be given a new lease of life. It’s a highly ambitious transmission project that Ciné-Tamaris could not have done without the support of CHANEL.