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Succinct, Crusty, Reflective and Always the Artist: Agnes Varda Talks “Beaches”

Succinct, Crusty, Reflective and Always the Artist: Agnes Varda Talks "Beaches"

“The grandmother of the New Wave,” Agnes Varda’s (“The Gleaners and I”) latest documentary returns with a movie that synthesizes 50 years of filmmaking, and 80 years of life. Accoridng to New York’s Film Forum, where “The Beaches of Agnes” will open Wednesday, July 1, the film focuses on this early member of the French New Wave. Varda has worked with Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Jane Birkin, Michel Piccoli, Catherine Deneuve and Philippe Noiret — not to mention Harrison Ford, the Black Panthers and Warhol muse, Viva. Stories of her childhood in Brussels and adolescence in occupied Paris, of Los Angeles in the ’60s, and of life in her 14e arrondissement Paris neighborhood are melded with clips from both documentary and fiction work.

Husband/filmmaker Jacques Demy, who died in 1990, is an abiding presence. Varda is an avid collector: of people and places, sensual experiences and intellectual preoccupations, personal commitments and political principles. She is a mother and wife, a feminist, nature-lover and urban-dwelling artist. Above all, she is a woman in love with the cinema whose new movie perfectly expresses her sentiment, “While I live, I remember.”

In a first-time discussion with indieWIRE, Agnes Varda corresponded by email. Consistent to what we hear from others who interview her, she’s a bit crusty – let’s say a compliment somehow became an insult. She’s concise, but we truly liked the movie all the same…

indieWIRE: Why make “Beaches” now? One might interpret it as a climax to a fascinating career and life…

Agnes Varda: The numbers make a big impression on me. When I saw 80 coming I thought I had to do something. Since I am a filmmaker, it became a film.

iW: I read that you spoke disparagingly about your formal education before running away to Corsica. Who or what do you credit for inspiring your art?

AV: Two answers: I think I didn’t even speak about my education. Inspiration comes out of many things: Admiring painters even from the ancient times, reading, being curious about creative people, made me desire to be part of them.

iW: I’ve had the honor to take your picture twice at film events in New York City and both times you acted like you didn’t want the photo taken and then you were directing me how to take it. Do you have strict principles for photography? If not, who are some photographers that you appreciate that have a different style from yours? (by the way, I did ask both times before taking the photos and you ultimately
agreed…)

AV: Why do you call it an honor to take my picture since you complain about my behaviour? I know I hate people using flashes close to the subject. Sometimes I suggest: “I hate to look like a white cheese. Please go much further if you have to use the flash light and zoom.”

iW: What motivated you to move into filmmaking from photography?

AV: I think I wanted more connection to the world. Cinema certainly is the best way to be an artist nowadays, even if the movie business is not so much interested in artists. So I didn’t make a career, I made films.

iW: I was surprised to see that a woman’s right to abortion was such a debate in France even though it was in the early ’70s. I think Americans generally view France as a bastion of liberalism and laissez faire attitudes toward sex… Is that true or is that a misunderstanding?

AV: Sexual liberation is one thing. It was a big issue in the 70’s, in France, in California and other places. As for birth control, which was a wonderful and important scientific discovery, it wasn’t easy to make it efficient then some women needed abortions. As long as it was forbidden, we had to fight to get it legalized. You know the problem here also.

An image from Agnes Varda’s “The Beaches of Agnes.” Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

iW: Which moments were among the most difficult for you to revisit in “Beaches?”

AV: It was easy to remember, it was easy to forget. When it deals with Jacques (Demy), I feel pain but also I love to speak about him.

iW: In the film you showed a courtyard that was quite dilapidated and full of junk. I think you said your father was asking you why you wanted to live there in fact… Now it is of course beautiful…. Do you still live in that house with the courtyard?

AV: Yes.

iW: I loved the photograph of Fidel Castro that you showed in the film. When did you take that and what did you think of him at the time? Do you still have the same opinion?

AV: I took the picture in January, 1962. The man was very dedicated to the revolutionary changes in Cuba, working hard and not playing the rich leader. Of course [I don’t have the same opinion]. History gave answers but the Cubans, those who still believe in that revolution even if doesn’t really work, are very courageous.

iW: I loved seeing the local people in your films in the different towns you lived in. Why was it important for you to feature them so prominently?

AV: Gertrude Stein wrote a book, “Everybody’s autobiography”…I could say that people and places have been important to me.

iW: In the film you showed a tender close up on film of Jacques Demy’s hair before he died describing the texture and shapes you saw – similar to a child describing figures in clouds. What would you see if that camera did a close up of your hair?

AV: The shot on Jacques’ hair and skin and close-up of his eye was a way to be very near him. Children’s visions have nothing to do with it. I made myself a shot on my white hair in “The Gleaners and I.” One has to have a reason to decide what to film.

iW: Who have been some of your biggest creative inspirations?

AV: Picasso… His work [though] I never met him.

iW: What will your admirers see next from Agnes Varda?

AV: I do installations and video films for gallleries and museums. I switched from an old moviemaker to a young artist. “They” will have to catch up with my work!

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