Agnès Varda made her first feature film La Pointe Courte in 1954, while still in her mid-20s, and quickly found herself associating with a whole wave of young French filmmakers approaching cinema from entirely new angles. In Varda’s case, her training as a photographer and her interest in journalism led to a string of films that straddle the line between fiction and documentary by combining beautiful imagery with an unflinching view of reality. Varda spoke with The A.V. Club about her latest film, The Beaches Of Agnès, a sort of loose autobiography that revisits the places she and her late husband Jacques Demy frequented during their remarkable careers.
The A.V. Club: In The Beaches Of Agnès, you say that you’re not nostalgic for your childhood. So what prompted you to look back on your life?
Agnès Varda: I said I was not nostalgic because what’s the point? I’m not nostalgic. My memories are back here in my mind. If you remember the last sentence in my film, I say, “I’ll remember while I’m alive.” Do you remember that? I’m sitting with my brooms around me. Because you know in France, a broom means age, so I’m sitting with 80 brooms. Did you get that? And when I’m sitting with my brooms, I said, well, life is a strange thing. But I’ll remember it while I’m living. So nostalgia doesn’t make sense, because it’s like bringing the memories back to be a special part of my day or to be part of my week. And I’m inside my memories the same way I’m inside my everyday life. I am sometimes melancholy, which is not the same. Sometimes I feel sad, but this is not nostalgia, because I don’t want time to come back.
AVC: So because you’re living with these memories all the time…
AV: Not all the time. When it happens to come to my mind.
AVC: …you don’t look back with regret or longing?
AV: Just pain, that’s what I feel sometimes. Melancholy. I’m missing some people, you know, and this is not nostalgia. I miss them. This is melancholy.
AVC: That image you have in the very beginning of the film of the mirrors on the beach is very striking. How did that come to you?
AV: It’s very simple, and even obvious. The mirror is the tool of the one who wants to do a self-portrait. And if you want to make a photo you need a mirror, you know. The usual attitude is that you look at yourself within the mirror. And my point was really that I could do it better with my hands. If I take a mirror and I look at myself by holding it in my hands, and then I just turn it, I see other people. I have my mirrors, which mirrors the ocean, the sky, the faces of the people around me… I show the mirror to all of them. I think all the time of a title of a Gertrude Stein novel, The Autobiography Of Everybody. It depends on what direction you put the mirror. So it’s clear that in my film I’m not just putting myself in the mirror so much. It’s me among other things. I want to pay tribute to people, tell who I met, who I love, and things like this. Plus, you know, I’m a witness, not only to my own story, but I’m a witness to the second half of the 20th century, and so have observed things that have been important at that time: revolution and women’s emancipation and birth control and the Black Panthers and China and Cuba. I’ve been to all these places. So my memories are included in things that happened at that time. I don’t think the mirror and the self-portrait are so important. It’s a way of approaching many subjects.
AVC: Do you find, having made films for so long, that you begin to see potential subject matter everywhere you look?
AV: I understand that you have to be ready for things to happen all the time. Like in the first scene of my new movie, I go to this man who invites me to see my old house, and he’s a collector. Well, I immediately become a documentary filmmaker again, and I say, “Having that man be my subject is more interesting than anything to do with me.” So okay, I speak about my life, but I speak about many things. If I find something better to speak about, then I do.
AVC: Do you have any plans to make another non-documentary feature at some point in your life?
AV: Not officially. I’m turning into working in a museum or a gallery, to installations, including film and video and movement. So that’s my next, because I’m doing that already for years.
AVC: You’ve been doing a lot more documentary filmmaking in recent years, but there’s always been a documentary element to even your early narrative films. I was wondering if you see much of a distinction between narrative films and documentary films.
AV: It is difficult to make a real distinction. This film has been received in two categories. Two weeks ago in France, we have a ceremony called the Cesar, which is like the French Oscar. There were two films winning. For fiction it was Seraphine, and for documentary it was my film, The Beaches. But there is a union of French critics of cinema, and they gave me the prize of best film, and not documentary. So I’m in between all these things, you know. I don’t know how you saw the film, but it’s not just a documentary, right? But it’s not a fiction either. I try to break the barrier, break the border, and give freedom to film and allow myself to show the painting in the middle. And to speak about people, speak about myself, and then discuss the Cuban Revolution or show images of theater. Showing myself is part of the process, as well as discussing important issues of self-control, of birth control. So I’m trying to open the field of cinema, and not to say “This is that.”
AVC: Did you find on returning to some of the places you filmed when you were younger that you saw them as a filmmaker in much the same way? Did you frame them the same way through the camera?
AV: You know 50 years have passed since La Pointe Courte. Even more. So when I go there, it’s because I’m family with them. I know them, I know their children, their grandchildren. And sometimes it’s like a joke, you know, how they show my film every 10 years and there is always somebody who hasn’t seen it. A grandson or something. I come back there because I like these people. But the choices I made back then were very drastic choices, if you think about the way the cinema was. I think I’ve been following that for years, always trying to search for the shape of cinema, what I call like “cine-writing,” which is screenplay writing plus mise-en-scene. I try to put it all together: The concept of the filming and the editing. The editing is very important for me.
I’m very happy that all my films have come in the States. Cleo From 5 To 7 I did in ’61 and it came here in ’62. Then Criterion put out a box of four of my films recently. And among the four films there is that first one I did in ’54, the one we’re speaking about, La Pointe Courte, and they made a DVD out of it, which made me very happy because it pushes my beginning, before the New Wave time. It’s a daring film for the time I made it, no? My approach to the fishermen, in a way, you find it again in my approach in The Gleaners and I. In the same way I tried to approach these people who have nothing, who eat garbage, who eat on the floor. And I give them the right to speak, to express something, to be themselves. Not only to beg or be poor, but think and express, which I think is important.
Anyway to answer your question, the way of working has changed with the equipment, you know. On La Pointe Courte I was in 35mm, then later I did 16mm. But now it is a digital camera. Not the smallest one, but I work with medium-sized ones, and I can film myself. I’ve changed my approach to people and to filming because of the new equipment, which is important.
AVC: Has it given you more freedom to move around?
AV: Freedom, and also a feeling of reality. I was free always. I could work without the money, to film this and that. But this is another point, because now I’m alone, and I can just use it when I want. I think the digital cameras have changed my view. Even though sometimes, including the installations that I show, I mix 35mm filming and video handmade.
AVC: Do you find digital video more real?
AV: No, not more real. It’s my relationship with reality that’s different, ‘cause I can approach it myself. If you ask somebody else to do it, they may do well, but it’s like directing an actor. You can buy a good pasta but when you cook it yourself it has another feeling. Sometimes I want to work with a DP, sometimes I want to work myself. I go to 35mm, 16mm, it’s all the same, but it depends on what you want to tell and what are the tools you need. Now in the States, you know, I’ve been coming so many years, so I have a little following. People like my films. They understand me through my films; it’s like a connection that has been established between all my work and myself and the audience and the viewer. So it’s like a sum. Is that the word? When you add things? It’s like a sum of some of my experiences, not all of them. Well I picked, I chose, I spent a long time editing. And I said I want no nostalgia. This is the film, period.
AVC: When you began, it’s very well-known that you had not seen a lot of movies. As you’ve gone on in your career, have you made an effort to watch other films?
AV: It’s not an effort, it’s a pleasure. I just didn’t see films when I was young. I was stupid and naïve. Maybe I wouldn’t have made films if I had seen lots of others; maybe it would have stopped me. I started totally free and crazy and innocent. Now I’ve seen many films, and many beautiful films. And I try to keep a certain level of quality of my films. I don’t do commercials, I don’t do films pre-prepared by other people, I don’t do star system. So I do my own little thing.
AVC: Did the generation of filmmakers that you came up with—including your husband, Jacques Demy—try to push each other? Did you find that when you watched a film by your husband for example, that it made you want to be a better filmmaker?
AV: There was a big respect, in terms of work. But in terms of inspiration, silence. He didn’t inspire me more or less than other films. Good cinema is good cinema. It makes you feel like you need to work. Just yesterday I saw a good film, but even if I’d seen a bad one, I’d feel, “Oh my god, what a bad job, I can do better.” I go back to many films that I really love. Some Bresson, some Godard of the early times, the Cassavetes of those years I love. And the early Wim Wenders. But my own films I don’t watch, unless I need them. And I needed some pieces that I put in my own film, did you notice? I have to get them out of my films. I remember them, but I don’t watch my own films. There is little time; I’d rather see another film.
AVC: Do you find that of you go back and watch, say, an old Godard film, that it’s like looking back at a place and time you remember?
AV: Well it’s related to time, it’s related to friendship. And if I see Jacques’s early films, a lot of memories are linked to it, you know. Really I remember shooting and editing, I remember the Golden Palm at Cannes and how he wanted to rent a tuxedo, and I went in a black dress. Memories of funny things like this around our career. And when he came to Hollywood, we were thrilled. We got a black car and a second white car. All these memories are linked to film. This is not film, it’s our life, but it’s linked. Life and filming and filming and life. I have a big love for Jacques Demy, but now that he’s gone my family and me, my daughter and me, we take his films and restore them, we make beautiful boxes of his films, so we are still with him, with his films. But it doesn’t make him come back.
AVC: Do you think if you had not become a filmmaker, that you still would have found a way to travel the world and meet all these people?
AV: Certainly not. We have a stupid saying, “If my aunt had wheels, she would be a beautiful bus.” If I was tall and blonde, I might have been a dancer or singer. No, I’m not tall, I’m not blonde, I’ve never had a concert. You have to invent life.