AFI, LACMA Honor French Director Agnes Varda

Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection
Viva (left) and Varda in a scene from "Lions Love (... and Lies)."

She was first attracted by Los Angeles' "dreamlike" qualities, and now both organizations are celebrating the woman called "the godmother of the New Wave."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Some things just don't seem to change. At 85, director Agnes Varda still sports a version of the bobbed haircut she wore as une jeune fille, back when she was breaking into the boys' club of young filmmakers, known as the French New Wave, who were redefining cinema in the '60s. And her love of Los Angeles -- which she first visited in 1967 -- has remained just as strong and distinctive.

"I found it very dreamlike," says Varda of her first impressions of L.A. "It had the quality of daydreams, which I like. And a quality of strangeness. And it's so different, from Bel Air to Venice."

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Varda is returning to Los Angeles from her home in Paris at the invitation of both AFI Fest, the American Film Institute's film festival running from Nov. 7 to 14 at the TLC Chinese Theatre and other venues in Hollywood, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At AFI Fest, she will serve as guest artistic director, introducing a quartet of films she personally selected and also attending a screening of her seminal 1962 feature Cleo From 5 to 7, which follows a young French woman as she waits, for two hours, for the results of a medical test.

Meanwhile, LACMA has mounted an exhibition, Agnes Varda in Californialand -- which opened Nov. 3 and will run through June 22 -- that is billed as the first U.S. museum presentation of Varda's work as a visual artist, featuring photographs she shot during her time in California. Speaking from her home in Paris before making the journey, Varda says the prospect of a return visit excites her, expressing delight about coming "back to Los Angeles, which I love so much, and to be welcomed as an artist, as a filmmaker and visual artist."

On her inaugural L.A. trip, she accompanied her husband, director Jacques Demy, who had been invited by Columbia Pictures to make his first U.S. feature on the strength of his musical hits The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. While he focused on a picture called The Model Shop, which captured the sprawling, car-crazy city as it existed at the time, she initiated her own projects: a short documentary about the Black Panthers and a celebration of hippie culture, the feature Lions Love (... and Lies), starring Viva, one of Andy Warhol's superstars, and Gerome Ragni and James Rado, creators of the musical Hair. "The films are about sex and politics, like they were at the time," Varda proudly declares. For the LACMA installation, Varda has created a shack out of celluloid film strips from Lions Love because, as she explains, "I live in cinema."

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The director returned to L.A. for a second stay during the late '70s, when she became fascinated with the murals sprouting on walls through­out the city. Befriending a whole range of Chicano artists, she filmed many of them for her 1981 documentary Mur murs.

While her husband died in 1990, Varda -- whose son, Mathieu Demy, is an actor and daughter, Rosalie Varda, is a costume designer -- has pressed on, reflecting on her life in documentaries like 2008's The Beaches of Agnes.

"She has an incredibly strong personal vision, and she is an uncompromising artist," says AFI Fest director Jacqueline Lyanga of Varda. "She is a true director in every sense of the word, and she has made terrific selections for her sidebar program. It has been a delight to work with her."

Says Varda of the films she'll present, "I chose films I like and admire." They include Robert Bresson's 1959 Pickpocket; John Cassavetes' 1974 A Woman Under the Influence; Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1979 The Marriage of Maria Braun and Martin Scorsese's 1985 After Hours.

During her stays in Hollywood, she says she and Demy met Cassavetes and his wife, Gena Rowlands, "but we were shy and didn't become friends." As for Scorsese's movie: "I don't like violent films, but this one is such a sweet nightmare. It bounces around like a pingpong ball. He's a good director, Mr. Scorsese."