Agnès Varda Goes from Film Buff to Filmmaker
A conversation with the legendary director, whose new documentary Faces Places is playing now at TIFF Bell Lightbox
From her signature strawberry cream bowl cut to her no-holds-barred filmmaking, everything about the legendary French New Wave director Agnès Varda is iconic. At TIFF '16, during a period in which she attended several parties held in her honour (including the announcement of the TIFF filmmaker lounge, Varda, where she famously took a five-minute nap), she conducted an interview with The Review about her trajectory in film and why she keeps making movies. At age 89, Varda is in sharper, more living colour than ever. Her new documentary Faces Places (Visages Villages) (now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox), made in collaboration with the French artist JR, sees the two art attacking their way through the small villages in France, encountering the locals, learning their stories, and producing epically-sized portraits of them on houses, barns, storefronts, and trains. The unexpected friendship between the two artists is something to behold, especially during the film's surprising and cathartic climax. Here's Agnès Varda on being the only woman in the French New Wave, juggling motherhood and filmmaking, and making space for women in film.
You’ve said that when you first began making movies, you had to use cinema as a language. I think that’s a very interesting idea.
At the time, I was going to the theatre and was the photographer for a group, Théâtre National Populaire. I was not going to the movies. My parents never took me to movies — maybe once, or twice. When it came to my mind that I could write a screenplay or make a film, it felt like a utopia, something I never thought would become real. At 25-years-old, I had seen less than 10 films. Today, I meet young people attending special classes at university. These people are 21 and have seen hundreds of films already. They are passionate and I love that, but I must say, it’s a shame. I didn’t come from that, I knew nothing about film.
Instead, I imagined a film, and some friends said, “Let’s do it!” This became my first film. The first day I shot the beginning of my film called La Pointe Courte on July 1954, I knew I was a filmmaker. But I had to do my first shoot to understand it — strange — but that is what it was.
What was your first day of shooting like?
Just normal. I took a very difficult scene with a poor woman and her kids. I said to the crew, “The camera has to be here, we’ll do this and that…”, it was simply what I had in mind. I remember thinking, “I know how to do this!” Then I made other films; I’m still making films.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
I felt like that was a nice status in life, to be an “artist.” I didn’t know what exactly what kind... I thought that I should write, then I started taking photos, but at the time, I had to make money. I took a lot of photos, not very artistic ones, I would say. I took photos of families with their kids, I worked for the train company, and did things I had to do, but what I always focused on was compositions. Now, it seems ridiculous to tell it that way because everyone we know has a camera, but this was a long time ago and society was very different. Just possessing a camera was not something everybody did. My past goes back so far. We should go ahead.
Well, it’s an interesting moment in your career. Last year, you won the honourary Palme d’Or at Cannes, this year you’re having TIFF’s Varda Lounge named after you.
Can you believe this? I never thought my name would be given to a lounge for directors. I mean, they’re like all my kids and grandchildren. I’m like everyone’s grandmother now: "Comment dit, ancienne?" (“How do you say — ancient.”)
Does it feel strange to look back on your career?
I mean, I’m doing a film now that I’m co-directing it with an artist, JR. Despite a big difference of age, we’re working together very nicely. We are doing a documentary, or a kind of documentary, about what it is to meet people. I love documentaries; I love the surprises people can bring when you take the time to listen to them and what they have to say. I’ve escaped fiction for some years because I’m impressed by what people we don’t know (and the people we discover) can give us.
I made a documentary some years ago called The Gleaners and I (2000) and people were surprised that I approached the kinds of people they would never have met. I took the time, they gave me the right to share their lives, and I found a lot of intelligence in their positions on society. They’re not “bums,” if you take the time, people have the best of themselves to express with intelligence and sometimes, humour.
I love being a filmmaker but I haven’t shot as much because I’m so old. If you look at the films I’ve done, there aren’t so many. Some directors do one film a year. I always wait, sometimes due to problems of money, sometimes because I didn’t have subjects that touched me enough. I’ve ended up making maybe 20 or 25 films, which over so many years, is not so much.
Your 1975 film, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, plays today at TIFF. What comes to mind about this film?
I just introduced One Sings, the Other Doesn’t and talked about how it was made exactly 40 years ago in the summer of 1976. I had made it then about the struggle, which was very strong in France, to get the simple rights to birth control and abortion. It was mostly about the right to decide if we want children or not, which was then in the hands of doctors, husbands, lawyers, churches, and men who didn’t care about women and how they felt. I’ve witnessed how difficult it was for women to have that threat of pregnancy. I don’t exactly know what the story was in Canada, in the States, and in other countries, but I know exactly what happened in France. I wanted my film to be a testimony of that time in a fictional way with two women who were friends. I wanted to show this in a joyful way, a way of saying that we don’t have to make faces because we fight for something. Love is beautiful.
In ‘68 and ‘69, I remember there was a feeling that life could be joyful, but I was always paying attention to very serious problems like the right to decide to have a child. I think the freedom of not desiring children is important. I fought for that in demonstrations on the streets, I signed manifestos. The film on the other hand has two beautiful, young actresses: Valérie Mairesse plays “Pomme” and Thérèse Liotard plays “Suzanne.” They had very different approaches to portraying how women had to fight. The film was well-received, I remember coming to Montreal to watch it with a huge crowd of about 1,500 people. At the time, the problem was very hot, so the film touched a lot of people, including a lot of women. I remember nurses coming up to me, saying, “We have been in the hospital, seeing all these problems.” Men, too, responded.
But thank God, I didn’t make films about this issue for my whole life. I tried to have almost opposite subjects [in my work], like desire, nature, how we feel time. For example, Vagabond (1985), stars Sandrine Bonnaire, who was very young, maybe 18 years old. She played a beautiful girl on the road who was mad at everybody, a savage. I’ve made films about all kinds of people — people outside of society — trying to be with those who don’t have very good situations, the marge. I ended up being a marginalized filmmaker as well, if I may say so. My films are known but almost none have made a lot of money.
There are other things to feel proud about.
I feel very proud. I was in South Korea [recently] and they spoke about Cleo from 5 to 7 as if it was made yesterday. In China, a student came up to me saying, “You know the film, Cleo from 5 to 7? You say you [shot it in] real time, but I saw one scene where you have a jump cut,” which was true. The idea that when, 55 years later, a student from as far as China knows about your work, you feel something. Like your film exists.
Look at the number of films in this festival, there are as many as 12 I’d like to see today and tomorrow. When I’m asked to introduce my films, I’m impressed that at a festival where they can discover so much, they still come to see an old film. I’ve come many times to TIFF. Last time, it was for The Beaches of Agnès (2008) and it was very well-received, which I’ll always remember. We always remember when we felt good. We try to forget deception, when you don’t find the money, when a film is badly received, when people are mean. I think it’s nice to remember good times of sharing cinema and the passion for what you and I can do; how we can meet people. I never thought I would meet people from so many different countries. I remember receiving an award from the Audience Award Jury at Caracas and I thought, “Wow, I’ve never been to Caracas. I don’t even know exactly where it is!” I have a lot of regard for how my films are received, that's the most important thing for me.
I’m interested in what you think about motherhood and being an artist, because that’s such a strong theme in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. It feels like a conflict for most women.
I spoke at a lunch today with Mia Hansen-Løve and Houda Benyamina about this. The three of us have children and together, we feel strong. We feel so good to have had children, as well as being artists, directors, and writers. You shouldn’t have to choose between your career and motherhood and love. We think it’s possible to manage children and pursue what we call an “artistic life,” or a “career,” and not quit. We have double the possibilities that men don’t have: giving birth and creating. We feel good about that.
More and more women are becoming directors, when at the time, there were very few. In the so-called French New Wave, I was the only one. Now, you see women coming from everywhere and doing strong films with different approaches to stories than men. Just as strong, but different. I feel proud of that, not that I was supposed to take care of it, but seeing all these women expressing [themselves] through cinema makes me feel good.
It’s hard to be the only one.
At the time, there were others, but I was the only [woman] who was very “radical” in creating a new cinema. I always wished there were other women, not only as directors, but as cinematographers, sound persons, mixers, boom-holders, because we have to capture the entire approach to cinema. Now there are so many women working as technicians. I think that it’s important to not only be a director, but learn about everything else.
I remember One Sings, the Other Doesn’t was the first film in which we had as many women as we did men in the crew. This was something that had never happened. Before, you had the “continuity girl,” “the makeup girl,” “the hairdresser girl.” In my film, out of 20, there were 10 women and 10 men behind the camera. I remember saying, “We have to share everything.” We had babies on set, so the electrician, at times, had to change the diapers. It worked beautifully, it gave such peace [on set]. We shouldn’t have men and women fight for a job when both can do it. I’m very optimistic, which is very ridiculous. I still believe that sharing jobs and responsibilities between men and women is nice. In my films, I’ve had both women and men as directors of photography. Right now, the film that I’m co-directing with JR, we have both women and men working as DPs. I don’t want to be systematic about it. Never, ever.
I made a series called Here and There with my camera, almost alone, travelling and filming in the plains, the city, while meeting people. When I had a very important interview with an artist like Sokurov or Polanski, I would have a camera on a tripod and have help with the sound. But I've shot all my travels myself, while walking in the markets, in the museum. We can do it: it’s not only a change of mentality, but a change of technique.
Can you believe how easy it is to send prints and all that? I have a feeling I’m taking part in the history of development of cinema, and I use what is used now. In photography, I sometimes do Argentique silver shooting and work with silver prints. Otherwise, like everyone, I use iPhones.
What do you shoot on your iPhone?
Sometimes, a detail on a wall, or somebody I want to remember, or my grandchildren if they put costumes on. It’s not systematic.
It gives me the freedom that I can still do what I used to do, while using new tools and meeting people who love film. I love people who love film. Being in a festival is my pleasure because I see all these people, curious and excited to speak about this film or that film, saying, “Don’t miss this!”, or “Go there!” Though, I cannot go everywhere. I don’t go as often to the movies as before; I’m getting old and a little tired. But I still have the curiosity and desire for discovering films. There are many films to discover still.
What I noticed with critics is that they never get tired of discovering a film. I knew Roger Ebert, and am so proud that they are giving me the Ebert Tribute tomorrow. I remember how passionate he was for films, even mine.
What movies do you go back to over and over again?
Jacques Demy and I used to have 16mm projector at home; we would screen Pickpocket every three months. We’d watch Children of Paradise, Fellini’s work, and such films all the time. We were very impressed by Fellini, Bresson, and Bergman. Nobody speaks about him now, but at that time, he was so important. Then came the French New Wave. I’m still friends with Jean-Luc Godard and I love his films. I’ve been passionate about his career: so strange, so enigmatic. Now, we have young people in France, like Alain Guiraudie. His films Stranger by the Lake (2013) and Rester Vertical (2016) are very interesting. There are some women too who are very daring.
It’s a pleasure to love films; it doesn’t matter that it’s been difficult. Whether you present a film, or see a film, a film is a film. We don’t want to know if it took time to find the money, how much it cost to do the editing...
(Suddenly, TIFF programmer Steve Gravestock accidentally opens and closes the door and it sounds like a creaking ghost.) Hello? Listen to the door: beautiful noise.
That was a very funny noise!
Yeah (imitates noise).
What can I say? I also have had the pleasure to work with good composers. At the end of the film, when you mix everything — the sound, the voices, the noises — you see it’s finally taking shape and can be shown to other people.
Mixing is so fun because it’s kind of poetic, you have a vision of how a sound should sound. How do you feel your films out with sound and images?
When we edit, or even during the shoot, we think: “This would be beautiful with some music, or maybe none at all!” But you know, I go from film-buff to filmmaker, which is a little disordered.
Are you excited about the next generation of French filmmakers?
Sure! I’m curious about all these young people making movies. I try to see their first films. Houda Benyamina’s Divines won the Caméra d’Or in Cannes. I was part of the jury at the Festival for the Jean Vigo prize, given to first films. My first film was so radical, so different, and very few people saw it. I was puzzled because people were saying that it’s very new, very interesting, but wouldn’t go watch it. I was patient. I am still patient, believe it or not. Not patient about dying, but I have a lot of patience about the work.
What else can I say to you?
I don’t think I have any other questions. I’m going to think more deeply about my life, after speaking to you.
You know, if they’ve named the director’s lounge after me, I might just be the oldest film director alive.
(Laughs) That’s not true, I don’t think so.
I’m 88. Who comes to top me? (Laughs) Introduce me to my elders! It’s good to be in a good mood about that, you know.
When you're a young filmmaker and have early success, there can be a bit of a complex that makes you wonder — will people still want to see my movies when I’m older? So age and experience can only make you a better artist, right?
I don’t know. What I do know is that, sometimes, I feel a sort of shame; I feel like I should leave the room. Sometimes, I feel: should I still work even though I’m so old? Maybe I should just not work to give more room to the young ones.
But you still want to make movies, right?
I feel a desire to, very much so, but maybe I should stop myself. Maybe there is not enough room. So many new directors need the room, the theatres to play in, so I’m sort of questioning myself. I’ll tell you the answer soon.