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Martin Scorsese came to the Telluride Film Festival on Saturday not to unveil his latest film, The Irishman — which will open the New York Film Festival next month — but solely to participate in a festival tribute to the iconic French filmmaker Agnes Varda, whom he first met here back in 1977 and who died on March 29 at the age of 90. He described her as “one of the gods,” noting, “We became friends — and stayed friends.”
Joining Scorsese at the Palm Theatre on a panel moderated by Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf, ahead of a screening of Varda’s final film, Varda by Agnes, were Varda’s two children, both with the late French filmmaker Jacques Demy, Rosalie Demy and Mathieu Demy, and Telluride Film Festival founder Tom Luddy, who was Varda’s assistant on two films that she made in San Francisco in the late 1960s.
Insdorf, in her opening remarks, noted that the diminutive Varda was “the only female who was associated with” the group of maverick filmmakers who came to be credited with the French New Wave, and through her life and work “gave lie not only to sexism, but also to ageism.” Indeed, back on March 2, 2018, Varda, in garnering a best documentary feature Oscar nomination for Faces/Places, which she directed with the artist JR, became the oldest Oscar nominee ever, less than a year after she was presented with an honorary Oscar that noted “her compassion and curiosity inform a uniquely personal cinema.”
Rosalie Demy remembered that while growing up, “Each time the phone would ring, Jacques would say, ‘It’s Hollywood!’ Of course, it wasn’t Hollywood. But then one day, it was Hollywood.” It was 1967, Columbia signed Jacques Demy to a contract and Varda and their kids joined him in relocating to Los Angeles, where, Rosalie Demy recalls, “Everybody wanted to meet them” to learn how to make films outside of the studio system — and Varda learned English and continued to make films of her own.
Mathieu Demy noted that his mother’s personal and professional life were “always mixed together.” Luddy recounted the funny story of how he was tasked by his boss at the San Francisco Film Festival with showing Varda around the city when she came to town, and the next day was working for her on a documentary, emphasizing, “She was the type of person you can’t say ‘no’ to.”
But it was Scorsese who gave the most lengthy and powerful summation of Varda, the inimitable character, delivering a soliloquy of some 15 minutes. “She was a wonder to me, reinventing constantly,” he said, calling her “an inspiration” and marveling, “She immediately picked up digital.” He also noted that Varda would often show up unannounced when he was at work, and that he was always happy to see her, knowing that he would always get the straight truth from her.
“She wasn’t too happy with Kundun [Scorsese’s 1997 film],” Scorsese recalled with a chuckle, noting that he showed her a rough cut of the film. “She came the night of the Wolf of Wall Street premiere,” he continued, adding with a laugh, “She didn’t say anything to me about the film.” And, he noted, “she was in the editing room for Silence [Scorsese’s 2016 film]. And she came on the set of The Irishman.”
He elaborated about their interactions in his trailer on the set of The Irishman: “She said, ‘How long is the script?’ I said, ‘Agnes’ — I knew this was gonna get her — I said, ‘Well, it’s about 180 pages.’ She said, ‘[Gasping with exasperation] You can’t do these kind of things! It’s too much for you! It’s really too much!’ I couldn’t explain that it’s Netflix, and we’re doing something different, and it’s an experiment — and I got a lot of the inspiration from her, you know? Because she didn’t care — ‘There are no rules!’ That’s the key to her work.”
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