“How Could the Film be Interesting if the Director Doesn’t Put Himself or Herself at Risk?”: Agnès Varda, The Beaches Of Agnes
On the sad occasion of Agnes Varda’s passing at the age of 90 today, we’re reposting this spirited and typically inspiring 2009 interview done by Nick Dawson in the lobby of Film Forum when her autobiographical essay film, The Beaches of Agnes, was released here in the States. R.I.P. to one one of the great pioneers of modern cinema.
A member of the Nouvelle Vague as well as the Rive Gauche, iconic filmmaker Agnès Varda has built a 50-year career on her refusal to repeat herself or to be pigeon-holed. Born in 1928 of Greek and French parents in Brussels, Belgium, Varda was an Art History student at the Ecole de Louvre before becoming the official photographer for the prestigious Parisian theatre company Théâtre National Populaire. In 1954, she transitioned from photography into cinema with her first feature, La Pointe-courte, which placed Faulkner’s The Wild Palms in the context of a French fishing village, and consciously blurred the line between documentary and fiction. Varda married fellow French New Wave director Jacques Demy in 1962, and the same year had a breakthrough hit with Cleo From 5 to 7, a groundbreaking real-time drama about a singer waiting for medical results. Varda would return to explore the different ways in which fiction and documentary can be combined in Le Bonheur (1965), a romantic drama which starred actor Jean-Claude Druout and his real family, the US-made hippie movie Lions Love (1968) which featured a raft of 60s icons playing themselves, the semi-autobiographical Documenteur (1981), and the vérité-style narrative Vagabond (1985), with Sandrine Bonnaire as a young homeless woman. In 1990, Varda paid tribute to the late Demy in a film depicting his childhood, Jacquot de Nantes, and a decade later had an unexpected hit with her personal documentary The Gleaners and I, an example of cinécriture (or “writing with film”), Varda’s particular take on the cinematic essay.
Varda’s latest film sees the veteran writer-director marking her 80th birthday by looking back over her long and eventful life. The Beaches of Agnes is so titled because beaches have a special emotional resonance for Varda, and here she takes an unconventional and decidedly non-linear approach to revisiting – both literally and figuratively – places in her past. This subjective, contemplative film uses Varda’s patented cinécriture technique as she examines her life principally through her relationships with friends, family and creative contemporaries, while bringing her body of work into focus at the same time. The diminutive Varda is charming and self-effacing as an on-camera subject, but this sweet-looking grandmother nevertheless is unflinchingly honest as she discusses such topics as her rocky relationship with the late Demy. Inventive, sprightly and delightful, The Beaches of Agnes is the kind of coda to a career most filmmakers would dream of making, except that – judging by the energy she still displays both in front of and behind the camera – Varda is far from finished as a creative force.
During Varda’s visit to New York in March, Filmmaker talked to the legendary autrice about turning the camera on herself, her continuing drive to make films, and her fascination with Film Forum’s restroom patrons.
Filmmaker: How did you come up with the idea for the film? Were you on a beach?
Varda: Have you got the press notes? In there I tell how it happened, so I can’t say anything… I wasn’t on a beach. I’m on beaches very often; it’s more related to my age. I was 79, and maybe the zero was very strong, you now? Maybe you’ll be very soon 20? Or 30? 29 is not so much more than 30. And then 31, no matter. But 30, 40 50… When I was about to be 80, I thought I should do a film to have my 80th marked by something. Did you see the birthday with the brooms? In France, you don’t say that you’re 80 years old, you say that you’re 80 brooms old. Remember that? When I do that scene with the brooms, I said something I really believe, I said, “I remember while I’m alive.” The whole thing is about bringing memories into the today life. This is not going back so much with nostalgia or good or bad memories, it’s more how can these memories, these stories, these things that happen in my memory be integrated into my day? This is how the film is built. I go back and forth when the opportunity [arises], [with] things that happen,with what my mood brings me to also. I hope you appreciated that. It was not very organized, but keeping a lot of freedom to go back and forth in my own little history that crosses a lot of the history of the second half of the 20th Century.
Filmmaker: How fluid was your idea for the film? How much room did you leave yourself to be surprised? How tightly scripted was it?
Varda: I was ready for all surprises. Like this one with my emotions was a surprise. I gave an example: I go to the flea market. I find a plate of a Belgian city and I say, “I’ll give it to the Dardenne brothers.” Then I go and see these film files; they exist in France. So I was not set up, but there is a file of Jacques Demy, Jean Cocteau and me. I don’t think we are in the right place, but I think we are about there. And so, I throw Jean Cocteau and I end up with Jacques. This is at that precise moment, I think “My God, is that how people see us? A couple of pieces of paper?” That gave me the idea that there should be something more sexual about our relationship, and I made up the scene in the old remade courtyard: the couple goes back and the man has a hat on and she is naked. She is in a fabric like a Magritte painting – did you notice? Remember the scene? While I was editing, sometimes I would have these free associations, so maybe I would not have had that shot of the naked people if I had not found the files. I allowed myself that things would happen in the film, even though I had organized my trip in the boat and to rebuild the courtyard, and all this. Sometimes some things would come out of my mind and I would suddenly feel something. Here, all my memories are like flies surrounding me, sometimes disturbing me, sometimes nice flies.
Filmmaker: Did you go through photos and look at old letters, or did you only want to put things in the film that were in the forefront of your memory?
Varda: I had to go through some photos, childhood photos, which I had not looked at for years. Although my childhood is not that important, I had to have some of my family, had to find one where I could say that I was the smallest of the three first ones, and the biggest of the three last ones. I could make a film of six hours, but my aim is to make a real film which has a shape, which has a style, which has what I call cinécriture. Always choose the cinematic set-up to tell something, not just to tell. When I made tests for La Pointe-courte with a couple of my friends, [one of the actors] died after the tests. So I made the film with Philippe Noiret – you know who is Philippe Noiret? – and I copied the tests that I had done: arriving into the village, the fishermen watching them going into an alley. But I realized that the children of that man and that woman, grown-up now, 50 years old, had never seen these tests. I could just show them the whole movie and say, “This is your father,” but I thought, “I have to make something, I have to make cinema in cinema.” I’ve been telling that scene very often because for me it’s very important. [We got] that carriage from La Pointe-courte: we put that screen and the 16mm projector and the real film and even the electricity, and then we did the traveling shots, very complicated shots, and they pushed the carriage with images of their father. For me, this is cinema in cinema, and memory into an action. It’s like a funeral, like any other funeral, to push memory like a corpse itself into the night. I don’t know if you saw that scene the way I see it. It’s a very strong scene in terms of cinema because it’s like showing that cinema was moving, the man was moving, and the carriage was moving and the traveling was moving. It’s like, “How can we investigate what is movement, what is cinema?” So in many places of that film, I did try to invent a cinematic language for these memories.
Filmmaker: You say at the start of the film that you want to focus on other people, not yourself…
Varda: And I do. You don’t see me that much… You see me a lot, but there is much more of other stories, other people, other names. You know, there is that famous book of Gertrude Stein, Autobiography of Everybody. Remember that title? Everybody has been me, which is not true, but yes and no.
Filmmaker: How was it for you to be so much in the focus of the film? Was it easy to be yourself, or did you end up playing a version of yourself, a persona?
Varda: I started very honestly, saying “I’m too short, I’m different of the rest. I’m on the beach. I’m very plump and I want to tell my story.” But I think that other people intrigue me more, and it ended up being about the landscape we all have inside us. It allows me to be the one telling the story. You see me a lot in the film, but I think I’m [focusing on] so many other people that I can’t see it as a narcissistic self-portrait at all, because otherwise I wouldn’t have waited until I was so old. I would have done it when I was in better shape. …I cannot believe the number of people who go to the toilet [at Film Forum]. Incredible! You should calculate this – three per minute!
Filmmaker: You have invented this idea of cinécriture, the film essay. Was there a conflict between that and the very personal, intimate aspect of the movie?
Varda: There was no conflict, because I think the parts that were intimate were needed because… You know, being here is very interesting because I can calculate the rhythm of people going to the toilet. …No, I was feeling that I had to show myself. Not too much, though. Talking about other people, naming them. They’re around me – they’re me, you know? The figure of Jacques Demy is really at the center, since I met him years ago and had so many years with him, with some ups and downs. We came together wishing to age together – and then he died! But life is not finished and I’m still working, and all this is mixed in a way that I hope makes sense. He has been very important in my life, is still very important, but making film has also been very important, before him and after him. I don’t hide that. As much as I’m alive, I’m a filmmaker.
Filmmaker: You seem to be driven to still be constantly creating, and there’s a real diversity in the kind of projects you take on. Do you have a constant hunger or need to challenge yourself?
Varda: It’s not a hunger to challenge myself, it’s more an artistic desire. I try not to repeat myself, which means challenging myself. I remember after Le Bonheur, I was offered at least five films with the same kind of story. And after Cléo, somebody else wanted me to make a film about a singer where something should happen to her… I mean, I hate to repeat myself, I hate it! So all of my films have been different. When I did The Gleaners, I was investigating the new cameras and how we can handle that to approach people who are so socially fragile. I was really trying to push the aim further. I’ve never made a career, I’ve made films. It was almost a mistake that Vagabond did so well, and the others did well. Like The Gleaners did well in the States, but it was discreet. I’m not complaining, it was seen by people who love it, and this one may be the same story. That’s where I feel good, where I make films in total freedom that are appreciated as free. You would believe that this film is only seen by old people – not true! Because the young people love freedom. They love the idea that a film can be whatever you feel, and it gives them a lot of energy to believe that an old lady can be so free, so we have a new audience of young people.
Filmmaker: I’m interested in the process you went through on this film, where you filmed in two or three week periods over the course of two years. What was it like to revisit all these places and, as you say, to remember while you lived?
Varda: What do you mean “all” these places? I told you, at the house of my childhood I found a girl and was very touched by the girl and then I bumped into all these people and became a documentarist again. I forgot about that. Many things happened that I had not expected and sometimes I had a tale I needed to tell, sometimes I went back in the middle of editing to shoot because something was missing, feeling very free to film what I needed. [Varda wanders off to look at the popcorn machine in action in the Film Forum lobby] Come with me – we are going to the popcorn area! We are together traveling, you know? Oh, I feel good here – much better!
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Varda: It never happened. It’s just a more beautiful way of living, it’s not a job for me. It’s way of leading a life in which artistic desire becomes the way you feel.
Filmmaker: What was your dream job as a child?
Varda: I have to make connection with my childhood… Did I have a dream job? I’m not sure. I remember making a little, two-page magazine like kids do, but I never intended to do that as a job, I just thought it was a way having a parallel life to school, doing something different. But I never had that in mind. I remember that my mother would say that the most beautiful job for a woman was to be a mother, and I thought “Bullshit! It’s certainly not enough.” I thought, “How could she say that? This is not a job. This is work, but this is not a job to desire.” I remember I was shocked, but I didn’t have an answer to that. As for myself, I don’t think I had a desire to become something specific. All my life I’ve been very much here and now.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Varda: I think it was Snow White [and the Seven Dwarves] in a huge cinema called the Metropole in Brussels. Our family never took us to the movies, but they took us kids to see this. I didn’t like the film. Everybody thought it was wonderful, but I reacted badly to it. The witch was totally scary and I found the prince so stupid and ugly, ugly, ugly! Bizarre to say it of a child, but I didn’t like the design of it. I hated it, even though the midgets were interesting characters. This I remember. In a way, I thought it was ridiculous that she served them but they were nice. In a way I liked them, the small ones.
Filmmaker: Should a director always take risks?
Varda: Sure. How could the film be interesting if the director doesn’t put himself or herself at risk? That’s the only interesting challenge of being a filmmaker. The Beaches of Agnes is a risk. The risk was, “Can I find fluidity in a bunch of puzzle-like pieces?” The risk was that people would say, “Oh, my God, this is a flea market…” So it took me nine months of editing and a lot of good thoughts to really find what I needed. It came from the freedom I gave myself to bring a Picasso painting, to show something that I liked, to exploit the fact that when it started to rain, we’d use the rain. When I met crazy people, I grabbed the people. I was always enjoying what I was doing in the moment.