Cinema's grande dame


SCREEN ICON:At 82, Agnès Varda, ‘the godmother of New Wave’, could be forgiven for slowing down, but five decades after she shifted from photography to film, she remains as energetic as ever. ‘I feed on art . . . That’s my pleasure,’ she tells RUADHAN MAC CORMAIC, Paris Correspondent, ahead of her visit to the Cork French Film Festival

PERHAPS IT’S THE WAY she bounds around her big purple house, glowing with excitement as she runs through her latest works-in-progress, or how she mocks her own claims of incipient memory loss by tossing out knowing asides about friends such as Jean-Luc Godard or Jim Morrison and the rest of the Left Bank set.

Or maybe it’s that, with those inquisitive, darting eyes and the trademark pudding-bowl haircut – silver on top with an aubergine band along the fringe – the 82-year-old looks so much like the wide-eyed young photographer who decided, in 1955, that it would be fun to make a movie.

Whatever it is, Agnès Varda could make a 14-year-old feel he was getting on a bit. “I’ll tell you, I’m lucky to be in good health,” she says. “I have titanium all over, but it works. I’m losing memory, I’m losing vision, but so far so good. I love to work. I love it.”

Varda is at work these days on the editing of a new five-part series on her favourite artists for French television, having travelled to Russia, South America and across Europe to assemble it. A late career sideline as an installation artist (to mark her debut, at the Venice Biennale, she turned up dressed as a potato), consumes the rest of her time, and she is preparing for a visit next month to Cork, where an exhibition of her artworks and a retrospective of her films will be the centrepiece of the city’s French Film Festival.

The accolades accumulate, but the pleasure in being asked never dims. “You know, Marseille will be the European Capital of Culture in 2013, and they have commissioned me to do something for that. I’m so excited. The idea that they have asked me to do something. I’m the same as I was when I was 10 years old, and I was chosen by my teacher to read from a book.”

It’s an overcast Saturday morning and we’re sitting in the living room of Varda’s home on rue Daguerre, near Montparnasse. The house, a violet-coloured landmark bisected by a long internal courtyard, has been hers since 1951, when she bought what was then a ramshackle and filthy old picture-framing workshop and set about slowly fashioning a home out of it. “It had no heating, no toilet, nothing,” she remembers. “I threw water over my body to shower. But I didn’t care. Five or six years later, I had a toilet and heating. I’m so glad I made that choice.”

The house is an extension of her personality, a life’s museum whose story is intricately meshed with her own. Varda’s beloved art books take up every corner of shelf space, and the rooms are filled with paintings and trinkets hoarded for more than half a century. On the windowsill is a clock with no hands, which she found in a pile of rubbish during the filming of Les Glaneurs et les Glaneuses (The Gleaners and I, 2000), a documentary about scavenging and collecting. Across the road is her editing room and a little shop, where every week fans drop in to browse or pick up a DVD. “I had a young girl who came from Rennes and she said, ‘Can I stay for three days to watch you editing?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I love the idea making films and being able to have direct contact with the consumers – it’s like buying tomatoes directly from the farm.”

Born in Brussels in 1928 to a Greek father and a French mother, Varda was christened Arlette but changed her name to Agnès when she was 18. Her family fled Belgium during the war and moved to the French fishing port of Sète, where she spent her adolescence before setting up in Paris – first at the École du Louvre and then as a photographer attached to the Théâtre National Populaire. With her still camera, she began to travel, documenting first Chinese life in the late 1950s and then the tumult of the Cuban revolution. Famously, the woman now known as “the godmother of the New Wave” didn’t know a thing about films before she made her first one, La Pointe-Courte, in 1955.

“I had seen fewer than 10 films before I made it,” she says with a smile. “When I was editing La Pointe-Courte with Alain Resnais, he said about one shot, ‘That reminds me of La Terra Trema by Visconti.’ I said, ‘Who is Visconti?’ I knew nothing . . . If I had known the masterpieces I saw later, maybe I wouldn’t have dared to start.”

Varda’s career took off. After La Pointe-Courte came Cléo de 5 à 7, in which a pop singer whiles away two hours in Paris, considering her own mortality as she awaits the result of a cancer test. Varda met and married the director Jacques Demy ( The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), and together they had two extended spells in California, where she got to film flower-power, the love-ins and the height of the Black Panther movement. For one of her films, she screen-tested a young unknown named Harrison Ford, but the studio reckoned he had no future in the business.

At their base on rue Daguerre, meanwhile, the busy hub of creative activity had become even noisier as home to their children Rosalie (Varda’s daughter from a previous relationship) and Mathieu, now an actor and film director. “A house is something that lives. It moves all the time, changes all the time,” Varda remarks, scanning the room. “I always came back. Jacques and I separated for a while, but we came back always. And when we separated, Jacques only moved across the street.”

Speaking of Cléo’s success in the early 1960s, Varda said what interested her was reconciling two versions of reality: on one hand, the imaginative or conceptual, on the other, the snapshot of real life – “things caught in the moment” – and having them play off one another in real time. The idea has held firm through her career, as has another stylistic signature: the constant shifts between the serious and the playful.

Jacques Demy died in 1990, aged just 59, and his premature loss and her own hurt at being robbed of their chance to grow old together is the poignant heart of Les Plages d’Agnès, an inventive memoir film Varda released in 2008. And yet the work brims with colour, spectacle and fun: Agnès driving a fake cut-out car around her courtyard, trapeze artists performing on a beach, or a scene where Varda fills a section of rue Daguerre with tons of sand and relocates her office and staff – desks, computers, phones, the lot – into the middle of the street-beach. “I think we’re always balancing on that very thin thread, between unbearable thoughts and pleasant thoughts,” she says. “So how can cinema participate in that way of living?”

An engaging, generous talker, Varda lets the conversation move in unexpected ways, leaping from one topic to another, from the grave to the whimsical and back again in a sentence, approaching everything – films, relationships, art, music or a funny-shaped crisp (“Look at that!”) with a playful curiosity.

“Mademoiselle Nini loves foreigners, and she loves men,” she announces as one of her two cats lunges at her Irish guest. “But her son is slightly stupid. He lives his life as a cat, but he’s not interesting.”

Varda’s most recent films have earned praise from critics and managed to cover their costs, but elevated status hasn’t made it any easier for her to secure funding for her projects. “The fishermen in Sète have a saying, ‘a little less thanks, a little more money’,” she says in a thick southern accent. “I’ll show you the cabinet full of awards. And if I want to make a film, I can’t find the money. It’s incredible. They don’t trust me . . . I’m on the margins. I’ve felt that all my life. I’m proud of it, you know.

“Godard said one time that ‘the margin is what holds the book together’. I love that. Sometimes, it gives me a feeling that justifies my lack of success. I say, I’m holding the book together! It’s not true, but I think the world of cinema needs people like me. I’m not the only one – there are millions of us. We work whether we have success or not.”

One recent success – Varda’s move from the cinema to the gallery – is the fulfilment of a long-nurtured dream that culminated in the ringing applause that greeted an installation at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in 2006. Her work has been bought by Moma and other galleries, and as part of the Cork French Film Festival, a selection will be exhibited at the Wandesford Quay Gallery.

“In cinema, it’s all representation, however realistic you are,” she says, and the new work finds her relishing the chance to combine her old friends, photography and film, with painting, collage and, above all, with the physical object itself. In one triptych, a photo of the sea gives way to a screen showing a projection of the waves before they tumble towards a bed of real sand.

We have been talking for well over our allotted time, and Varda’s family are due for lunch any minute, but she fetches some white wine and olives and eases back in her chair, chatting about her lifelong love for music and art. She returns constantly to the masters – “I’m still very attached to Bach” – but enjoys discussing the work of overlooked young artists and film-makers from around the world. “I feed on art . . . That’s my pleasure. I don’t read much any more – just books of art, to look at pictures by the artists I love.”

Varda made Les Plages d’Agnès when she turned 80, partly to pass on to her children and grandchildren a record of her life. It’s a film about memory, its selections and confusions. But it doesn’t feel nostalgic. “No. I’m melancholic, which is not the same. Sometimes I feel the time is passing and Jacques is no longer and the waves repeat and repeat themselves. We repeat what we do every day – I brush my teeth, we wash the dishes.” She pauses. “But then all that matter is interesting. I think life is interesting.”

“I miss Jacques, but the life of somebody is still there. The man is dead. We have put in a little bench at the Montparnasse cemetery. A lot of people sit on the bench, smoke and eat their sandwich, read a book. He’s a skeleton now, 20 years later. There is no flesh. I’m not hurt by that. This is what it is. Life and death and destruction and ashes. What we leave are traces, and Jacques’s films are beautiful traces of Jacques Demy.”

When she dies, she adds, she’d like it to be peaceful, here in the house – just like her husband. “All my negatives are here. The editing room is there. Behind this wall is the production area. All the offices are there . . . Film is in my life, my life is my films.”

Of course, most 82-year-olds would feel entitled to lighten their workload and enjoy some rest, but still Agnès Varda keeps rising at 7.30am for another day’s work in the editing room. Is she ever tempted to scale back, to ease off? In response, she mentions an incident during a trip to Mexico for the new TV series. “I went to the market very early – I love that – and there was a woman – 60, 65 – with a pink satin ball dress, a lot of jewellery,” she says quietly, as if the woman was across the room.

“And she was sweeping the entrance to the market. Incredible. She was sweeping the market. She had a little stand with biscuits and some things she had knitted. She was so chic, at 7.30 in the morning! I filmed her. I love what life brings you. People’s surprises. People’s original surprises. This is what’s exciting, and it’s why I don’t stop working. Because of that pink woman.”

The doyenne of French film directors, Agnès Varda has been called the godmother of the New Wave movement. Her first film, La Pointe-Courte(1955), was a stylistic precursor to the edgy, experimental works of contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, and through celebrated films such as Cléo de 5 à 7and Sans Toit Ni Loi (Vagabond)she offered a rare alternative to the largely male perspectives of the Nouvelle Vague.

“At the time of the New Wave, we were lucky,” she says of those heady days. “We were the only ones. Cinema was sleeping, and here was a bunch of new people. We went to central Europe and they loved us, we went to Japan, we went to America. Kings and queens – well, one queen – of the world.”

Active in the French feminist movement of the 1970s, Varda has shifted from photography to fiction to documentaries – and, in recent years, to art installations.

But a singular style and vision have held constant: technical rigour, comic juxtaposition, whimsy and high seriousness, the fascination with drifters and outsiders.

At 82, Varda is as prolific as ever.