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Iconic French New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda is not pleased about getting only a one-week release for her movies at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas Oct. 16-22. When assured the newly restored Kung-fu Master! and Jane B. par Agnes V. eventually will be viewed by many on various media, the feminist film pioneer and 87-year-old “grandma of the new wave” is only slightly mollified.
“I will go in the street with a little bell telling people to come in. I can do that in Times Square. I can get the Palme d’Or, but I can’t get exhibition, so it’s a contradiction,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter, referring to her honorary award bestowed at the Cannes Film Festival in May. “I would have wished Jane B. came out in better conditions.”
Making its U.S. theatrical debut 27 years after it was completed, Jane B. par Agnes V. is a portrait of actress and singer Jane Birkin — muse and wife of Serge Gainsbourg and mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg, who at the age of 17 appeared frequently in the movie. It could be called a documentary, though much of it is staged, including fantasy sequences in the desert and a black and white parody with Birkin and Varda playing Laurel and Hardy.
The idea for the film came to Varda when Birkin complained to her about turning 40. “I said 40 is the most beautiful age for a woman,” recalls Varda. “You’re an attractive woman, you have kids, you’re beautiful, you’re clever, you know something about life. It’s the perfect age to make a portrait.” So that’s what Varda did. “She’s shy, but she wants to be seen. She’s modest, but she loves to show herself. She understood that I understood the contradiction in her. So we played with that.”
Famous for developing a strong subjective viewpoint outside of the auteur theory, Varda practiced what she called “cinecriture” (writing with the camera). While her first work (La Pointe Courte) actually predates New Wave, Varda and writer Marguerite Duras (who later became a filmmaker) were the only women in the more political Left Bank Cinema offshoot of Cahiers du Cinema. Known primarily for early classics like Cleo From 5 to 7 and later Vagabond, she continues to write, direct, teach and appear at retrospectives. Her movies mainly feature female protagonists, multi-dimensional characters whose conflicts are universal.
While making the movies, Birkin and Varda, who was married to legendary filmmaker Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) until his death in 1990, still had to take care of the kids. So they cast them in Jane B. par Agnes V., and again in Kung-fu Master! In the latter, Birkin plays a single mom who begins an affair with a 15-year-old played by Varda’s son, Mathieu.
“That was in ’87, and it’s the first time people were thinking about AIDS,” Varda recalls. “After ’68, love is beautiful, love is perfect, 20 years later we’re saying, ‘Hey, love is dangerous! AIDS kills! Love is dangerous.’ It was a very different social attitude, and I wanted to witness that change in the young people.”
The movie was universally well received and was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival, joining a long list of accolades Varda has accumulated over a lifetime, including three Cesars and a Silver Bear. Yet she’s never achieved the same recognition of her male peers. “I know I’m a marginal filmmaker,” she sighs, “a marginal success.”
While France has a higher percentage of women in film (23 percent of 2013 features were directed by women), Varda feels the gender imbalance behind the camera slowly is changing in the U.S. and elsewhere. “Little by little, because it’s so obvious that women can do film as well as men do,” she says. “I see a lot of students. A lot of students in cinema are women. So we’ll change the industry little by little.”
Among her favorite filmmakers, she counts Miranda July, Maya Deren and Chantal Akerman, who took her own life on Oct. 5. “She’s a real director, a real innovator of shape and form,” Varda says of her fellow Belgian filmmaker. “Her films were beautiful and moving. I met her when she was very young, and I remember thinking that she was intelligent, and she was fragile, sometimes depressed. When she was not depressed, she was a good director and a clever woman and even an enjoyable woman. She loved to laugh. She’s a figure of cinema changing in the ‘70s. She’s one of the early female directors like Claire Denis and other big women in France.”
Conspicuously absent from that list is Varda herself, one of the most enduring figures of the period that shaped modern French cinema. “Can you believe I started in 1954, my first film? At the time, I was the grandmother of the New Wave. Now, I feel I’m the dinosaur of the New Wave,” she smiles nostalgically. “My films bring energy. Not only women, men, young men, they all come and say, ‘That makes us feel good.’ So at least it brings pleasure to people.” And that brings pleasure to Varda, at least for the moment. But seconds later, she’s frowning again, “Still, distribution remains a terrible problem.”
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