Few diminutive women have left such an outsized mark on the film world as French New Wave icon Agnès Varda. Often called the “godmother” of the movement thanks to early classics like 1962’s Cleo From 5 to 7, she’s long left fiction filmmaking behind for her groundbreaking unscripted films, which blur the line between retrospective and reality with what she calls her “subjective documentary” style.
Varda, who was presented last year with an honorary Oscar the very same year she received her first nomination, the oldest nominee ever at age 89 for Faces Places, takes center stage in her new doc, Varda by Agnès, premiering out of competition Wednesday in Berlin. Billed as a masterclass (“but I don’t feel like a master,” says Varda, with characteristic humility), the film is a collection of lectures the director has given everywhere from Harvard to Venice Beach, distilling her filmmaking lessons down to a big-screen philosophy she calls “cine-writing.” Now immortalized on screen, the director doesn’t plan to give any more lectures, and this film may be her last — she now plans to concentrate on art installations.
The director finds the travel of filmmaking too demanding, and she’s reflective about time following the passing of Michel Legrand. The composer, a legend himself, collaborated with her late husband Jacques Demy on nine films. Now 90, Varda now prefers to spend time in her Parisian oasis, though she is not by any means an elderly technophobe. Always a documentarian at heart, she’s even taken to Instagram to film street workers with her iPhone.
THR sat down with Varda and her three cats in her apartment in late January to discuss her latest release, staying true to her instincts and why she’s uncomfortable with awards.
Was it difficult to examine your own work to turn it into Varda by Agnès?
It’s not difficult, because I think deeply about what I do. And when something is finished I don’t think of it as ‘I could have done better’ or ‘I could have done worse,’ but I try to understand the process of creating. It’s not only technical, I try to be spontaneous. The process is finding the right images, the right words, following instinct. I really try to follow a filmic instinct. I’m an artist now, I’m preparing another exhibition, and I show it vaguely in the second part because the documentary has two parts, the 20th century and the 21st century. In the 20th century I was mostly a filmmaker and in the 21st century, I am an artist. I alternate documentaries and installations. I build houses, shacks, with the actual composite prints. I’ve done the installations for a different way of looking at things, putting people in chairs with headphones and I question the communication between the one who creates and the one who receives. It’s like recycling my past as a filmmaker.
Is this is the “last word” then? Does this film say what you want to say about your idea of filmmaking?
I never wanted to say anything, I just wanted to look at people and share. It’s what I call cine-writing, in which all the choices participate to become something you could call ‘style.’ But style is a literary word, so cine-writing is all the elements we have to choose, or use, to make something that can be shared. In some fiction films like Cleo from 5 to 7, Bonheur, or Vagabond, my aim was to take a subject, a situation or something related to society. They were always mental adventures I wanted to approach and share. There never was a message that you should “get” and understand, so I can’t say if I’m satisfied or not. But let’s make it clear – the film I’m presenting in Berlin is maybe not so entertaining – but I will no longer accept to do a talk. This is it, this is my talk. You show [the film], don’t ask me to come. I want to speak about things, but I don’t want to speak about my work. I feel that I should spend two hours to look at a tree or to look at a cat, instead of speaking. After Berlin, you can see the film instead of me speaking.
You’ve talked about “being a star of the margins,” of never being in the mainstream. How has that impacted your point of view as a filmmaker?
I have made few films in a way. I never made action films. I never made science fiction films. I never made, really, very complicated settings, because I had modest ambitions. I knew they would never trust me to have the budget to do something different, so my mind is more focused on things I know. So they were always mental adventures I wanted to approach and share. Working for cinema with no – not only no money, but also no ambition for money. I was happy and proud [to receive the honorary Oscar] because of that, that [the Academy] could understand what kind of work I have done over 60 years. I stayed faithful to the ideal of sharing emotion, impressions, and mostly because I have so much empathy for other people that I approach people who are not really spoken about. I have 65 years of work in my bag, and when I put the bag down, what comes out? It’s really the desire of finding links and relationships with different kinds of people. I never made a film about the bourgeoisie, about rich people. about nobility. My choices have been to show people that are, in a way, more common and see that each of them has something special and interesting, rare and beautiful. It’s my natural way of looking at people. I didn’t fight my instincts. And maybe that has been appreciated in the famous circle of Hollywood.
And aside from the Oscar, you also received an honorary Palme d’Or, a recent honor at the Marrakech Film Festival. Do you feel the cinema world finally recognizing your body of work?
Now that I’m old they want to give me something everywhere. It’s like saying, you’re old so we’ll give you something. So I have two closets full! I say thank you as if someone gives you a gift, but I think it’s unfair. Some other woman, some other director should have it. There are a lot of directors working, especially in France, a lot of them are good and I’m the oldest so I look at it like, I’m a potiche now and it’s easy to put me on top of a pedestal. But I really respect a lot of women directors that don’t get awards. So I feel a little like it’s an alibi, like saying, ‘we respect women’ but there is too much focus on me. Some other women are really good, and I would like them to be in the light more often; for example, Celine Sciamma, Naomi Kawase, Ula Stockl, Maren Ade, Pascale Ferran, Claire Denis, Emmanuelle Bercot, Noemie Lvovsky, Ruth Beckerman, Sally Potter, Jane Campion … I could name many others.
You participated in the 82 women’s walk on the red carpet in Cannes. Do you think this demonstration will create change in the film world?
The idea was to say the steps are ours and we can succeed with equality. It’s not the be the boss, but to make choices – the choice of what films go into the festival, the choice of what films should be helped with funding or not. On many boards, women don’t make the decisions. Festivals invite women on the jury, but the films are chosen by committees where you have one or two women out of ten people. But the festival was not the right place to discuss it, because they always have women that they love to show. I don’t think it was the right place to do it, because all the women who [were involved] are already in the light. You know when Cate Blanchett or Ava Duvernay or these famous women say something, they are not among the worker women. So it was OK but for me, it was a little show.
But you still took part. Did you feel in some way it was important to make that show in order to get people to pay attention to the equality issue?
It’s complex. Because when famous people say something and people listen – did the message get through clearly because it came from the Cannes Film Festival? Maybe. You see that it is a big show. But if you do it in the street, you do it in the metro, you won’t be listened to in the same way. So the situation is very difficult. In many other places, in industry, in the banks, in offices, in normal life, the choices should be shared. When women, or men, make films in which the situation of women is made clear, or when the situations [of inequality] are exposed, it will be understood.
Does cinema have a responsibility to educate people? Is it the role of a documentary to explain political issues?
Cinema can always help people to get a conscience. Not to teach a lesson, precisely, but at least my cinema tried to be fair and tried to open the eyes of people. But people don’t go to movies to be told they don’t see enough or don’t understand enough, so it’s really a small section of people that you can reach without being the one who scolds. I try to be honest about what I think and share it, but I don’t put myself out there as the person knowing what should be done. Go to every country and listen to the news. There are big problems and people are unhappy and unsatisfied. We are in a difficult world. I work hard to make honest cinema but I’m not pretentious enough to think I can change the world. JR says that art can change the world. No, we can sometimes change the mentality of people, or we can change the way people see the world or other people. We have to know that being an honest artist is already something.
Your late husband, Jacques Demy, had a long working relationship with Michel Legrand, who has just passed. Do you have memories to share about him?
I knew them in their best period of working together. I would film them from this window. The death of Michel brings me back to those years that are gone, gone. They were very happy to create together. So it hurts me in a way, plus I liked Michel very much. It was something that one of them was still here, but now they are both gone. And I’m old you know, I’m 90 years old, so very few people around us have known us all those years because people around us are dying. So Michel was a witness of those years with Jacques. Recently, Michel was sick, but we were together in a bar and we sat on the side holding hands, saying nothing, staying together. Because he was sick and he knew he was not too well. I was a witness of all those years, so we stayed like this, hand in hand, just last week or two weeks ago because at some point, you don’t need words. Now, I can no longer hold his hand to make that clear. We deal with death all the time, and I will be dying soon. It’s OK, we all have to feel that. It’s interesting to fulfill life every day, it’s related to friendship, food, going to buy bread and speaking to people in the bakery, and creating.
Will you continue working or do you plan on doing another film after Varda by Agnès?
I will do some art now, because filming is tiring. I no longer want to work so hard. It’s too difficult. I’d like to stay home a little, be calm, enjoy, even reminiscing peacefully can make my day. We’ve spent an hour talking about my career and life is passing, and at my age, every minute is more or less the last minute. I feel it very strongly. Not minute by minute, but sometimes, and it’s a normal thought. So I should enjoy what is here. Even seeing the tulips aging, I love that. The more you wait, they become very bizarre. As it was with the heart-shaped potatoes aging [in The Gleaners and I]. The aging process, I enjoy it a lot. I love what happens to things aging, and to people aging. I love the wrinkles, the hands, I love all that. I’m really interested in what can happen to a hand. It can be a lovely landscape. So I have a good time aging, and I love to see things getting to be naturally, vaguely destroyed.
Is aging particularly hard for women because it is something that we are taught to be afraid of?
We’re in a society where you have to be young and thin and blond, but forget about it. In Faces Places, we went to listen to people. People who are not supposedly in the light, mostly because we live in a world where we are surrounded by huge images of stars, of models, advertising people, selling something, famous actors selling something and I thought, we’d like to put big images of normal people. Which is why we did these huge enlargements of people in the village — a mailman, a worker — because we wanted them to be as important as a celebrity. Our world should not be spoiled with only famous people and women in nice dresses. Society is very cruel to people. I made a documentary called Women Reply, and there was a woman saying that society doesn’t allow us to age. You have to fight that. Some women are beautiful and thin and blond, but life is not about that. There are other things to be appreciated. The people around you and the work you do, your milieu. We have to escape from that and be free-minded. I try to do that, always. You are weak sometimes about the subject, but don’t be. I love to see things age and move and become something else. I’ve loved aging, really, and I love to look at things. One of my beautiful art pieces is Potatotopia. I kept [the potatoes] and checked on them to see how they were aging, and aging potatoes are really beautiful. So you have to feel that way. Don’t suffer. Be like a potato.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Feb. 10 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.