Celebrity, Filmmaker, Grandmother: Agnes Varda
by Andrea Meyer
Agnes Varda, the filmmaker known as the Grandmother of the French New
Wave, has been making films for more than 40 years. She began as a still
photographer working primarily in the theater, and then — with no film
school education, no production experience, and no particular love of
cinema — she threw herself into making films. She completed her first
feature “La Pointe Courte” in 1954. Alain Resnais edited and Felippe
Noiret starred. Guerilla fashion, nobody got paid, and everyone had a
great time. A new wave of filmmaking was born that would not have a name
for years, and Varda went on to rock the film world with ground-breaking
works like “Cleo from 5 to 7,” “Le Bonheur,” and “Vagabond.”
In 1994, on the occasion of the French “100 Years of Cinema“
festivities, Varda completed a film called “101 Nights,” about a
100-year-old man named Mr. Cinema (Michel Piccoli) who does nothing but
sit around with his old movie star friends and gab about movies, until
the day he hires a pretty, young film student (Julie Gayet) to sit
around with him and gab about movies. The kooky comedy features a parade
of celebs from Deneuve to De Niro to Belmondo, as well as Varda’s son,
Matthieu Demy, who also plays the lead in another film opening this week
“Jeanne and the Perfect Guy,” directed by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques
Martineau, a musical in the tradition of his father, deceased director
Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”). Varda spoke with indieWIRE
when she was in New York promoting her son’s film and her own. “101
Nights” and “Jeanne and the Perfect Guy” are currently playing in New
York and open soon in Los Angeles.
indieWIRE: Tell me about “101 Nights” in the context of your other
Agnes Varda: The film is a comedy, which I have not done so far — not
very seriously — but the whole thing was an opportunity to make some
references to films I love and to have visitors, because on a first
level, cinema is about stars. Whatever we love — the auteur theory, the
directors — what people see is faces on the screen. So, I asked a lot
of stars to come, and they came. I could convince Gerard Depardieu. I
gave him his first part when he was seventeen, in a film we never
finished. People said “that guy has no future.” I think I convinced De
Niro because of Catherine Deneuve and Deneuve because of De Niro. Both
were excited to work together. He’s very charming. He’s not like usual
mafia killing type. I convinced the old timers, Gina Lollobrigida and
Jean-Paul Belmondo and Hanna Schygulla, and they all came. And I
convinced Alain Delon. He had said “no” at first, but when he heard that
Belmondo had come and De Niro had come, he said, “Hey, I shouldn’t missw
this thing” — and he came with his own helicopter. It was funny.
iW: It seems like the film was really about celebrating the films that
Varda: Not in a very systematic way. Some critics criticized me, saying
“oh, you forgot this beautiful film or you forgot the Russian cinema or
you forgot this or that.” Okay, I forgot, but it’s like in an evening;
you speak with people. You don’t discuss the whole world. You discuss
what you discuss. Like memory, sometimes you remember stupid things and
forget big things. The memory’s capricious. So, it’s incomplete, but it
gives certain clues, certain glances to some films we love. We have to
take it like it is — a fantasy. The critics think I’m better with
serious films, like “Vagabond” or “Jacquot de Nantes.” People love
“Jacquot,” and they love “Vagabond.” It’s like, because I do those
films, that’s what I should do all the time. But I say let me have a
little fun once in awhile.
iW: Do you think it’s primarily an entertainment for cinephiles?
Varda: It’s about loving movies, but you don’t have to love movies. If
Mr. Cinema speaks with a cow, well, he’s just speaking with a cow. But
the cow on the bed is something in Buñuel’s “L’Age d’Or.” If you don’t
know that, there is a cow on the bed. You don’t have to know that he’s
speaking with Buñuel.
iW: Let’s talk about your role in the French New Wave.
Varda: I’ve been called the Grandmother of the New Wave, because my
first feature I made in ’54, five years before the New Wave, and I
already had the freedom and the principles that they had. I hadn’t met
with the Cahiers du Cinema. I never had any training. I wasn’t a
cinebuff like they were. I wasn’t a film critic. So, they called me the
Grandmother, because I started it, almost. There was a critic who said I
was the first “son de cloche d’un immense carillon.” It’s a beautiful
sentence. It’s the first bell sound of a huge bell concert. The immense
carillon is the fifty films of the New Wave.
iW: And what do you think has happened to cinema since the New Wave?
Varda: Many waves, more or less interesting, recently including many
women. We have at least 20 women directors having films in the big
theaters, normal distribution. Nobody even says, “well, it’s okay. For a
women.” That’s finished. They never said it for me either, because I was
so strong in my position and dedicated to my work. I would never accept
the slightest something related to being a woman or not. I was a
iW: What about Hollywood?
Varda: I think Hollywood makes good films. I think cinema has to exist
with different kinds of films and there’s nothing to discuss with this
kind is good, this kind is not good. We choose where we go. Maybe I
wouldn’t be able to do “Titanic,” maybe I would. Technically, I would,
but I’m not sure I would do it like this. To start with, I think it’s
un-type casting, because DeCaprio looks so elegant, so classy, and the
girl looks so peasant, so popular. She’s supposed to be sort of a Vivian
Leigh type, Grace Kelly, and he’s supposed to be more ordinary. But here
it’s reverse casting. But I like the film, and they act very well. You
know we had DeCaprio visit Mr. Cinema? We filmed him, but I cut it!
iW: What do you think of your filmmaking career overall?
Varda: I’ve made very few films, if you think about a filmmaker like
Chabrol, who makes one film a year, or Christian Jacques, who made 100
films in his life. But I still have difficulties to find money, and I
don’t think I can be inspired that fast. I need to reload my own. . .
not even energy, but sensitivity. And then life. I tried to do something
which was a dream-not dropping one life to have another one, like having
a family. When I met Jacques Demy, we spent time together — we
traveled, we raised the kids, we tried to keep something outside of
movies. Even though we spoke about movies all the time. Spending time at
the ocean was part of life. And now I have three grandchildren, and I
have to give them some time. So, you don’t do movies like a machine.
iW: What have you done that you love?
Varda: I’ve done three or four not too bad. I think “Cleo from 5 to 7”
is okay. I think “Jacquot” is okay and “Vagabond.” There’s one I love a
lot called “Documenteur,” which had a nice title in English, “Emotion
Picture.” I like some shorts I’ve made that no one’s seen. And my kids
are okay, my grandchildren. Jacques is gone, which I don’t like so much.
iW: Do you consider yourself a star?
Varda: People who have known me don’t forget my films, and other people
don’t know me at all. I’m not well-known, I’m bizarrely half-known. I’m
more loved than well-known.
[Andrea Meyer is a contributing writer to indieWIRE.]