The morning after receiving her honorary Oscar at the Governors’ Ball, visions of dancing with Angelina Jolie still danced in Agnès Varda’s head. “Can you believe they were surrounding me, protecting me?” she said, holding court on the brick Beverly Hills patio at the French Consul’s residence in Beverly Hills, wreathed by French journalists. Among those who came to see her receive the award were National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image president Frédérique Bredin, Unifrance president Serge Toubiana, and Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux.
“I’m totally honored, I’m totally pleased, I’m touched to tears that they did such a long trip to be with me,” said Varda, grasping an actual pair of rose-colored glasses. She sat poolside at a circular table, beside a teapot, echoing Faye Dunaway’s famous morning-after Oscar photograph 40 years prior. However, instead of a satin robe and stilettos, the 89-year-old photographer, artist, feminist, and French New Wave pioneer wore a coordinating striped blazer and floral top with khakis and silver lace-up shoes.
The Consul General of France in Los Angeles, Christophe Lemoine held a savory brunch in her honor, to be followed by a green, five-tiered Laduree cake topped with another gold statuette. When it was time for dessert, Academy president John Bailey, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures director Kerry Brougher, the aforementioned French executives, and a few-dozen well-wishers watched Varda take a bite from the chocolate Oscar, then pass it to her granddaughter, Alice, and other children in attendance.
She seemed equally young-at-heart while listing of the menagerie of trophies she’s won since writing her first film, “La Pointe Courte,” when she was 25: “I received many animals. I had a Golden Lion [from the Venice Film Festival, for “Vagabond”], I had a Silver Bear [from the Berlin International Film Festival, for “Happiness”].”
She also earned a Silver Condor from the Argentinean Film Critics Association Awards, for “The Beaches of Agnès;” and a Leopard of Honor from the Locarno International Film Festival; Mimi (the cat featured in her 2017 documentary “Faces Places”), even won a Palme de Whiskers. Returning to the creature theme, she later said, “Art is something which if you don’t investigate new ways of understanding surprise, emotion, then you don’t do [anything], then you repeat yourself, like a parrot.”
Courtesy of the Consulate General of France
As for the non-animal Oscar, her feelings are mixed. “The award I got last night” — alongside directors Charles Burnett and Alejandro González Iñárritu, cinematographer Owen Roizman, and actor Donald Sutherland — “has nothing to do with money, and nothing to do with competition… I didn’t take it from somebody else,” which made her feel “very good.”
However, she’s “not so excited” to be presented with lifetime achievement awards, which “make me think [that the industry is saying], ‘Okay, stop now. Get this and go home.'” It’s “better” when an award’s given for “one specific work,” as has happened all year long with “Faces Places,” which took prizes from the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, among others, and is now favored to win a nomination for best documentary feature.
Before the crowd, Consul General Lemoine even told Varda,”We wish you all the best for this award season, because there is something else maybe coming up.” Lemoine then directed guests inside the home, where a black box with a peephole enclosed a diorama — by Varda’s daughter-in-law, artist Joséphine Wister Faure — depicting one of its scenes: Varda naps on a train with her 34-year-old travel companion and co-director, the photographer and artist JR.
In the film, they mostly cross their home country in a camera-shaped truck, finding unsung local heroes to whom they pay homage with very large, very public portraits pasted onto homes, plus a barn, factory and even a German bunker on the beach.
“I went with her in 10 villages in France, and people adore her; and then I go with her here in Hollywood, and people adore her,” J.R. told IndieWire. “Often she tells me, ‘I don’t know if those people know my work, I don’t know if I got forgotten,’ and last night was to remind her that her work is so powerful that it goes beyond borders, beyond ages, beyond centuries.” Their unlikely friendship was not just for the screen: “We see each other almost every day,” JR confirmed. “We’ll keep creating together,” although “I don’t think we’ll do another film, for sure.”
Varda agreed. “Every Wednesday in France, you have 20 films coming out,” she told reporters. “We had to do promotion, we had to go to different cities, speak to audiences. And this is difficult, it’s painful, it tires me a lot… I’m almost 90, I can slow down.”
She prefers work where the audience “come[s] if they wish; if they don’t come, they don’t come.” While she “no longer want[s] to be in the distribution world,” she remains interested in other methods of broadcasting to an audience, like television, DVDs, VOD, and special screenings.
Like “many film directors and artists,” she said she and JR find themselves “in the margin. We know we are in the margin…I feel at ease in the margin. I don’t suffer being there, I feel good.”
Courtesy of the Consulate General of France
Varda also insisted that she feels no nostalgia. “You cannot change your life. I have it like a backpack with memories. Sometimes it’s heavy, sometimes it’s funny, but I have it,” adding, “I cannot erase the life I had with Jaques Demy,” her director-screenwriter husband of 38 years, who died in 1990. She has occupied the same Paris address since 1951.
“I’m still alive, sort of,” which sounds self-deprecating, but isn’t. “I’m impressed that I’m still alive, being so old and able to enjoy meeting people, enjoy working… I think I’m lucky because I didn’t lose the curiosity, the desire, the energy, and the need to express myself.”