“Curiosity is a good thing”: An Interview with Agnès Varda
For some 50 years, Agnès Varda has worked and lived in the 14th arrondissement in Paris, in a pink-painted atelier on rue Daguerre. (Her love of this milieu is well-known: she documented her fellow inhabitants of the small street in 1976’s Daguerréotypes, and in 2003 filmed a short surrealist rom-com, Le Lion Volatil, around the iconic Lion de Belfort and the Catacombs, both a stone’s throw from her address.) As one of the key figures in the French New Wave with a newly minted internet celeb status (thanks, or due, to her Faces Places co-director JR), it seems odd that Varda’s location should be so readily available. You can’t, for instance, google “Jean Luc Godard’s address” and map your way to his residence. And yet, this type of accessibility speaks to the nature of Varda as an artist: her inclination has never been to turn inward but outwards to the world, to observe, and document, people around her—especially those who aren’t always placed in the spotlight. For Varda, filmmaking isn’t a way to escape the world, but to be a part of it.
And so there’s something poetic in the ease with which her fans can find her. (As filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz recalls in our roundtable on the influences of Varda, this is precisely what happened to her: she stumbled in on the esteemed filmmaker editing Faces Places during a pilgrimage to Varda’s offices.) Yet there’s an ironic quality to this “readily available” reality too, given that for far too long Varda wasn’t the easiest figure to find elsewhere: in the film canon. While contemporaries like François Truffaut, the aforementioned Godard and Claude Chabrol gained celebrity status and were taught in film courses and honoured in cinémathèques the world over, Varda didn’t quite receive the same treatment. Perhaps it’s because she’s a woman. Perhaps it’s because she works in documentary. Perhaps it’s because her interests aren’t in the “masculine epic,” but rather in subjects that pique her seemingly insatiable curiosity: the stories of women, farmers, lovers, goats.
There have been, of course, Varda aficionados long before her honourary Oscar and nomination for Best Documentary this year. But these recent high-profile nods (which, as she tells us below, she takes with a grain of salt) are sure to raise interest in her vast, varied and still growing body of work. And whether one is coming to Varda later in life or has been a lifelong fan, the greatest gift of her films is there’s always something new to discover.
Recently, for instance, upon re-watching Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962), I noticed that Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller) sheds a tear in the film’s final shot. Afterwards, I wondered how that had escaped my notice before, and what had changed in me so that I saw it now. This is another hallmark of Varda’s oeuvre: though her films bear the marks of temporal specificity (the revolutionary potential of the Black Panthers in Black Panthers ; the Algerian war in Cléo de 5 à 7; the abortion movement in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t ; the advent of digital filmmaking in The Gleaners and I ), they aren’t didactic in addressing the moment in which they were made. As such, her works embody a fluidity that allows viewers to (re)connect with them and find (or make) space in them in the present moment.
It’s something I thought about on the rainy day when we conducted this interview on rue Daguerre: how do we frame the past when we’re still in the present? Varda has been making films for over half a century but never became set in her ways. While she’s inhabited the same atelier, crowded with souvenirs of her past, she has not bordered herself up within those walls with her memories. Like her films’ ability to morph with and not resist time, she too isn’t resistant to change. She’s still interested in the future. Still curious. Still looking to discover what’s happening just outside her door. If we’re to speak, far too soon, of penning any kind of legacy, then I hope this is it.
I’m one of the programmers of your TIFF retrospective—
I love retrospectives! I’m not talking about mine, but when you start to have curiosity about a filmmaker, [retrospectives] allows you to dive into them. If you see one film, fine, but if you allow yourself to see five films by the same person you may notice something—maybe people repeat themselves, they have the same topics. I’ve done documentary, then fiction, going back and forth, just following the desire, whatever inspires my need to make that film. I go from one film to another—not building a career—never like this. Never had a plan. I wait until something becomes very appealing to me, so much that I have to do it. That’s how I made such different films. And from the year 2000, I’ve mostly been doing documentaries and installations. It’s my third life—photographer, filmmaker, artist since 2000. My 21st century is different, as I have not done fiction.
You said once you never went to film school, but instead went to the theatre and walked in the streets. This strikes me as saying so much about inspiration.
I was curious. Curiosity is a good thing. And I was curious about different people. And, as I said, I waited until something was strong enough to disturb me or inspire me to make a film. That’s how I ended up making a documentary on my own street, Daguerréotypes, in 1975…can you believe it?
And then the sequel too.
Yes, and I did a sequel with The Gleaners and I. I was so impressed that when you do a documentary, people applaud you—well, they applaud the people who are in the film. I felt gauche. I said: “I need to go back to see these people.” So I did two years later, or I tried to go back, because sometimes they had no address. I went back to the people I had filmed in 2000, the gleaners, because I felt I owed them something. Not just respect, but friendship. I thought: “There is something between us. They trusted me to tell others about their lives.” By meeting them again, I felt a little better. Making a documentary about people in a difficult situation is difficult, also. Since I discovered with the new century the new little [digital] cameras, I have been shooting sometimes by myself, not with what can be a frighteningly big crew of people, you know? Is it a saying, “To play it by ear”?
This is what I wanted—not planning too much, not asking too much. For Faces Places, we had the same approach. We had decided some things, but felt luck would bring us a surprise. So when we started on a subject like, “Did you notice goats no longer have horns?”, we laughed. But then we started to discuss it, how the [farmers] burn the goats’ horns when they are babies. And then we met this beautiful woman who said: “Animals should be in their own shape. I would never do this [burn their horns], even if they are hurting each other.” It’s about entering into the mentality of other people with more than questions and answers. It’s about entering a real conversation in which they can express something that’s important to them.
I just bought a toy goat down the street from you.
Where did you find this?
In a store for children just down from you.
It has horns?
Good, if not I would kick you in the sack. But really, that subject, which seems vaguely ridiculous, when I ask people in the audience if they knew about it, they don’t. Many important news goes around, and the world is in chaos: politically, war news, migrant news. It’s all important. But I decided, since I put my interest in the horns of the goat, I would treat it comically. It’s a way of escaping the weight of real information, the dramatics of every day.
Chance and documentary are so linked; do you feel the same in fiction?
Yes. It is the same thing. When a shooting starts, I feel: “Something will happen.” But on this one [Faces Places], I [worked] for the first time with somebody else [co-director JR]. We enjoyed shooting because the people we met were very nice, and we tried to get them to invest in making the film with us. It was not about questioning them, saying: “What is it you do?” What we wanted to get from them was not just words but some imagination. I remember, about the goats: there was a mechanic we met who said they should put ping pong balls on the horns so they won’t hurt themselves—I love this idea! He suggested something, he participated. That’s what I love, and JR too; we want people to be creative when they speak and tell something the audience will appreciate. The woman we met in the north of France, in the city of the miners, she’s so touching. When we came, somebody told us the history of her street, and that not many people remain there. So we knock at a door, and they say no, don’t disturb us. So we go to another street, and by knocking on the door we bump into that wonderful Janine, who became such a big person in the film because she’s open; the way she speaks about her father, the way we could make a big image of her. It picked itself when we met her.
Do you think there’s something you bring to these encounters? Because not everyone is always so open, and I feel your films emanate empathy.
We make them laugh. We’re like Laurel and Hardy, me and JR. There’s so many years of difference between us—55 years! And people take it as a good feeling.
Because it was your first time co-directing a film, do you feel that you and JR both brought something unique?
I had never done [co-directing] before, but I enjoyed it very much because we had a ball. We were discovering each other also, because we didn’t know each other before the shooting, and he’s more secretive than me, with his dark glasses. I’m more open—at my age I have nothing to lose. I think that he took advantage of my good will when he took a photo of my feet and put it on a train. But it’s nice because, in a way, he says, the train is going to places I will no longer go, because it’s clear I’m old. He introduced me to his grandmother, who by the way passed away.
No, it’s through this that we shared something. Discussing that, that I met her—a lot of little things are related to confiance in someone.
He also introduced you Instagram—
I have to do it! I stopped for a month. I’m not used to doing it every day. JR is. Have you seen JR’s?
Because if you look, you can see he took my photo [the now famous cardboard cut-out] to customs, and I passed the border. I’m in a white skirt with black spots. He makes a joke out of the fact that I can’t come with him [to Los Angeles]. I like the way he does this.
Do you think it distracts from the work?
No. Because what makes sense in the film is still there. The people we wanted to shine a light on are there. We respect them, we gave them light, and size, and we honour them. And we got the best we could get out of them, including some sad pieces, like the man who is about to go into retirement. And on the other side, we enjoy the men in the harbour of Le Havre—these strong macho men—but I said I wanted to meet their wives. And then this became a big celebration of women. And these men helped us to do it. We helped to push the cliché, the préjugé. We helped them to see something different about how we can look at women. It was the little steps. JR exaggerates and says art changes society. I don’t believe that but it’s an attempt to share the hope that mentalities will become better, between men and women, [in] how we look at other people. And with our “artist’s look”, we give another perspective. We have nothing to hide, nothing to win, no money at stake when we do the work. This Oscar business is incredibly interesting; being part of the [Oscar nominated documentaries] makes me feel very good. But it doesn’t mean it’s important to get an Oscar. Just to be there is a good light on our work.
Thinking about the progress that women have made, have you been following the #MeToo movement and #BalanceTonPorc?
I’ve been with the feminist movement for years, and we have always said speak out, complain, scream. I have been marching in the street often since the 1960s and 70s. What’s happening now is good in a way because it pushes the women to say something. But the fact is true: power in society leads to sexual power. Very often. Very often men have been taking advantage of their positions to hurt women—young or not young. It is a serious problem and subject. And society will slightly change because some men have understood they’ve become accomplices. If men can understand they should not hurt somebody because they have the power, or strength to, that might change society. It’s good it’s become this sort of drama because of one man [Harvey Weinstein], that I disliked totally anyway. But changing society is three steps forward and then two back. Then one forward and then another back. Behaviours changes slowly—but it changes. I remember when I was a feminist in the ‘60s how it was difficult with the problem of abortion. When we fought for the freedom of just self-control, birth control, that was a victory. And then abortion was next. But we need the right to decide. I made a musical, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, and the first song is: “It’s no longer Papa, the judge, the king, the lawyer, the doctor…” I can’t really remember. But they [the men listed in the song] are no longer the ones who will decide if we will have a child or not. That’s a big difference. Still now, in some families, women have to obey their father and brothers. It’s still going on in the world today. But it used to be everywhere. There has been change. I recently had an operation and my surgeon was this young woman—she looked so fresh, so nice, and she has two children, she operates three days a week. And I thought: “Look at this woman! I could not have imagined a woman like this when I was young!” The power is still in the hands of men but it has slightly changed. And if women have confidence in themselves, they can do incredible things.
Like in Cléo de 5 à 7, when Cléo realizes she’s just this beautiful puppet to everyone and then discovers who she really is.
Yes, when the film starts she’s just there to be looked at. When she takes off her wig and puts on her black dress and goes out, she’s the one who starts to look. Looking at others is the first step of feminism—not being selfish, not being mirror-oriented. Looking at other people. Discovering what they do to make a living. Or how they behave. Cléo, in the shock of being afraid of death, starts to see things differently. The shock is very good for her. She starts to listen to other people. She sees her friend differently. The soldier she meets, she wouldn’t have gone with him another day. Bad situations do something for people. Maybe she’ll die of cancer. But that day, especially that time, those 90 minutes—it was hard to believe that in 90 minutes someone can change so much but it is true. But some moments in life are like this. That’s why Cléo could go with this solider who was in the [Algerian] war, that stupid war…I try to make films that are related to society but not totally in it. It’s not a film about the Algerian War. It’s not a film about cancer. It’s a film about finding threads in the world. The theme of death and beauty is a terrible one. We want to protect beauty. Lots of painters paint beauty; me, I made a film about it. There was an ancient German painter, Hans Baldung Grien, who for a time was painting beautiful naked women with tits and a skeleton. That mental image was with me all the time [while making Cléo], because that’s the flesh, the sweet flesh and the dryness of the bone. That beautiful woman is fragile because she’s afraid, but in the film we make it something that happens to her to make her stronger.
The fear doesn’t destroy her.
We think maybe she might get better. But it’s not about curing her. She might die. But we need the steps of understanding. I need that. And I have known that over the years. How people need the possibility of sharing, of not being alone. It’s bad to be poor, but it’s difficult to be alone.
I always get annoyed when people describe your work as “charming.” It feels dismissive, as if a film can’t be tender and intellectual at the same time.
I don’t think [my films] are charming, I think they’re warm.
What’s the difference?
Warm is empathy. Charm is making a fuss. If a relationship has some charm, there’s nothing wrong with that. Like with JR, we are comrades. I always call him that.
Collaboration also isn’t given a lot of attention in the canon of the “great auteurs.” There’s this idea of directors being alone.
I was alone, and then I wasn’t! Plus, there’s the fact that I’m weaker than before. We shot only one week a month. Then we would think about other things; he did the installation, I did an exhibition…I’ve become a visual artist in the 21st century. I made a big shack made of film in Los Angeles, like at the end of The Beaches of Agnès. I do that now. I’m preparing another that will open in April.
Which film stocks did you use to make the houses?
The first one I did was The Creatures.
Right, because there’re no more prints of that.
Yes. And in Los Angeles, I made the shack with the film I made in Los Angeles, Lions, Love [Lions, Love (… and Lies)]. Next month will be a film shack of Le Bonheur. But since there is such beautiful sunflowers at the beginning of this film, it will be a greenhouse! It will grow sunflowers. I try to use my imagination to always build something. Not only recycling the object, but recycling our own relationships with things.
The Beaches of Agnès is one of my favourites, and I found similar themes in Faces Places when it comes to memory and time passing. You address both, yet you’re not nostalgic or obsessed with the past.
It’s a way of recycling my own mind. It’s not nostalgia, it’s memory.
Do you get frustrated, then, when people ask about your legacy? You’re still working.
My films never made money. They never brought money to me or the company. But they’re loved. You speak about Cléo de 5 à 7—I did that film in 1961! Everyone still speaks about this film. I go to South Korea, North Brazil, and they speak about Cléo, about Le Bonheur, about Vagabond, which was a very important film to me. It seems that my films stay in people’s memories, or in people’s minds, as meaning something. For me that’s the best thing: to exist in other people’s minds, to know there’s an audience that has been following my work. It’s a small audience. It has nothing to do with big success. But in my category, in the margins where I am, I feel like a princess. Because it’s true [that] in the category of margin films I really have a good reputation. Sometimes Faces Places plays and people applaud; I think it’s because it touches people and makes them understand they can share. And we need that. Because we need links. The world is difficult and things go to pieces very often. But to create things, to make people witnesses of links, we don’t hurt anybody with this. But it’s just a little drop in the world of art, and in the world of creation.
And you’re still creating. You’re filming right now.
I’m doing a film. And next week I’m going to Harvard, so I have to speak and I’m not ready. And then I go to Los Angeles [for the Oscars], and I’m cool about, I love it. We’ll have fun. Rosalie [Varda], my daughter who did the production of Faces Places, and I decided we may not win anything, but the day after the Oscars we’re having a big Mexican meal. We have already made the reservations. Tacos! We have to take it like this. [The Oscars are] important and not important. This is what I feel. I’m proud and happy that they chose me. What I’m doing now is filming my lectures, because I want to make a film of my lectures, so that when I’m asked to give one I no longer have to go. I don’t travel that much now.
This is maybe silly, but why do you love purple?
Ahh, but this is not purple! [Points to her shirt.] This is Bordeaux! But purple is a beautiful colour. It looks dark, but it has the strength of a colour. I love that. I used to wear hot red when I was young, but this is better now. I love colours. They feed me…so anyway, you will show a few of my favourite films?
All of you films, but for The Creatures and La Cocotte d’Azur.
Will you show La réponse des femmes?
Good. This is an important film.
I also love Le Lion Volatil, and to see the statue from the film on the way here made me very happy.
Yes, this is a funny film. One short that I love very much is 7 Pieces [7 p., cuis., s. de b.,… à saisir]. And Documenteur. I gave a lot of myself [in that film]; the capacity of suffering, that we all have, and we don’t use it all the time. And with that film, I was proud because I decided the woman should not say what she feels but documentary images would speak for her. This is the first time I used documentary as a way of telling, and not as what it represents. A symbolic use. It was a cinema-writing that I like because I hadn’t used documentary image as metaphor before. Some images I shot I didn’t even know what they meant. Like on the beach, with the woman lying down with a Bible on her stomach and two men kneeling. I filmed and years after I still don’t know what it means! But that’s interesting because I’m aware we don’t know who we are, what we think, sometimes we don’t know the meaning of what we think. Using images to try and understand what we feel—it’s such a beautiful thing to be a filmmaker. That’s what I feel.
Thank you so much.
On a passé un bon moment. On a parlé du cinéma, vraiment, comme j’aime.
Beyond the Photo Album: Relocating Varda’s Salut les CubainsSarah-Tai Black