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Eugene Hernandez: Paris, City of Cinema (or, In Bed with Agnes)

By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire November 30, 2009 at 5:16AM

New York, NY, November 30, 2009 -- Last week, Amsterdam. This week, Paris. A city of cinema like few others.
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New York, NY, November 30, 2009 -- Last week, Amsterdam. This week, Paris. A city of cinema like few others.

The entertainment industry looks to Hollywood, but modern international cinema has Paris as its unofficial capital - the city's status confirmed with the birth of the French New Wave fifty years ago. And the matriarch of that movement is certainly Agnes Varda. indieWIRE managing editor Brian Brooks and I spent some time with her on Friday in her Paris home. Just back from ten days in Europe, I've been thinking a lot about the significance of Paris (and Varda). Chatting with friends, experiencing Paris' Fellini exhibition, meeting new people, eating good food and wandering the city snapping photos were a great way to spend the long holiday weekend, but talking with Agnes Varda on Friday tops the list of experiences in Paris.

Agnes Varda, who, by her own count, had seen just five films by the age of twenty-five and made her first in 1954, branched out from work as a photographer. She shares her rich history in "Beaches," which was the starting point for our discussion about her life and work.

Over at Paris' Jeu de Paume museum, a curator has organized an insightful look at the art and experiences of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, connecting scenes from his movies to moments of Italian pop culture. In "The Beaches of Agnes," Agnes Varda has created an elaborate, moving exhibition of her own.

"I am old enough to say that soon enough it will be too late to tell my story," the acclaimed filmmaker told me on Friday, propped up on a bed in her Paris home. With her cell phone, a TV and laptop computer nearby, the French director, photographer and artist, now eighty years old, is currently recuperating from a hip replacement surgery. She'll be back on her feet again soon enough, but for now she's using the setback as a bit of a retreat, getting away for a bit. Never too far from her work, Varda's active office and staff are nearby and her edit room is in a storefront across the street.

With her cat, Ninny, occasionally nipping on her toes at the foot of her bed, Agnes Varda casually chatted at length with indieWIRE Managing Editor Brian Brooks and I. She commented on current movies (from Alain Resnais, the Dardenne Brothers and Bela Tarr to "Twilight"), reflected on the French New Wave (and her late husband Jacques Demy), pondered the state of art and cinema and reacted to the recent news that "The Beaches of Agnes" has been named to the fifteen film shortlist for a nomination for this year's documentary Oscar.

Outside the UGC Odeon cinema in Paris over the weekend. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

"It's a kind of strange film you know," Agnes Varda smiled, talking about "Beaches," an unconventional bio-doc that not only explores her own life but also the second half of the 20th century. She was there for pivotal post-war moments: China in the late '50s, Cuba in the early '60s, Los Angeles with Jacques Demy and Jim Morrison, Agnes Varda was even the cover of Andy Warhol's first issue of Interview Magazine with a couple of nude Warhol superstars.

"Sometimes I was at the right place at the right time," she said on Friday. "For each scene I had to invent images of cinema to make it agreebale to see and, in a way slightly meaningful. But never heavy." She continued, "My life is not heavy, my life is not important enough to make it heavy."

Talking for nearly ninety minutes, only pausing briefly at times to move her leg or readjust a blanket, Agnes Varda seemed at peace. "I have received a lot of awards...gold and silver animals of all kinds: lion, bear, dog. It's a little zoo," she said, "I am delighted to be in the fifteen [Oscar short list], because it brings some light to the film." But, she added, "The real reward is the reaction of audiences."

As with most documentaries in theaters, ticket sales have been, in her words, "discreet," but Agnes Varda said, "If there were a box office of appreciation, if there where a box office of pleasure, we would break every (record)." She's been struck by the emotions her film has stirred among audiences.

"I make films trying to reach people and be unforgettable, if possible," she said, "This is the best you can do if you make films." She added, "If we make a little money for me, it's more than enough, what I want is to reach people."

Filmmaker Agnes Varda, in the courtyard at her house on Rue Daguerre in Paris. Image courtesy ciné-Tamaris.

A few weeks ago, I finally saw Agnes Varda's stunning "Cléo de 5 à 7" during the New York Film Critics Circle retrospective at BAM. As I wrote on my blog at the time, film critic Dana Stevens spoke of Varda characters who are often roaming and thinking, or thinking about roaming. Agnes Varda might use the term "searching."

Near the end of our conversation, I asked her if there is a message that can be gleaned from her own work, the French New Wave, or even her own life.

"How do you feel about what you do? And, how do you feel about what you have seen?" Agnes Varda asked in return. And then, she offered the question, "Do you want to be a searcher?"

I pondered these questions as she spoke, distracted and reflecting momentarily on how these ideas refer to her life (and perhaps my own). And then I asked her to elaborate.

"Some people are searchers," Agnes Varda explained, "They search for some way different to approach the material of cinema. In the writing, in the style, [they] structure a film differently, search for a different structure."

"Are you interested in innovators? In good films?" she continued, "Do you have a family? And, if you have a family, try to know them, their films, the people..."

Linking our cinematic choices to the daily decisions we make about what we consume, she added, "Where is the food? What do you eat? Some good films, they feed you. They feed you with intelligence and spirit or a love for people or the discovery of cinema."

Friday's conversation with Agnes Varda sent me searching for films (and food). She urged me to see Jacques Demy's 1982 musical, "Une Chambre en ville," a love story set amidst a '50s labor strike. So, I set out to find the movie.

While walking around Paris on Saturday night looking for the DVD, I wandered by cinemas that were showing two new movies I am really anxious to see, Brillante Mendoza's "Kinatay" from Cannes and Eugene Green's latest, "A Religiosa Portuguesa" (The Portuguese Nun), which has been nearly absent on the fall festival circuit. Like New York, and many other metropolitan cities, on any given night there are are a daunting number of cinematic options. On Saturday night, I sought other nourishment. I missed both movies in favor of a four hour meal at Hidden Kitchen, a ten course dining experience (created with market fresh local ingredients) alongside sixteen strangers inside a private Paris home. I met some interesting folks and we talked more about food than film.

However, at Cine Corner on Rue Ecole de Médecine (near the Blvd St. Michel), about to give up my DVD search, I found a restored version of Jacques Demy's "Une Chambre en ville."

Can't wait.

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be reached on his blog, through Facebook or via Twitter: @eug.

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11.23.09: Frederick Wiseman = The Greatest | 11.16.09: For The Love of Movies | 11.09.09: Building Buzz | 11.02.09: I want it like I wrote it. | 10.26.09: “Precious,” $1 Million or $100 Million? | 10.12.09: Critics (still) Matter | 10.05.09: Is There a Doctor in the House? | 09.28.09: The Indie Summit | 09.21.09: The Oscar Marathon | 09.14.09: DIY v. DIWO | 09.08.09: SPC v. IFC | 08.30.09: Saving Cinema | 08.23.09: Nadie Sabe Nada | 08.16.09: Movies, Now More Than Ever | 08.09.09: It Came From The 80s

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