By Gerald Peary
“The world is in very bad shape, but cinema in a way is a peaceful life.” — Agnès Varda
RIP Agnès Varda, 90, perhaps with her longevity and estimable career in both feature films and documentary, the most important woman filmmaker ever. She was spunky, argumentative, irascible, also charming as hell. I am honored to have interviewed her twice, in 1977 about her feminist classic, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, and again, below in 2008. The first time, she was angry at me, appropriately, that I’d co-edited a book about women directors and she was not included. The second occasion was all pleasure:
The 2008 Toronto International Film Festival proved hospitable to Agnès Varda, offering her latest work, the autobiographical Les Plages d’Agnès, and reaching back for a rare screening of her 1954 first feature, La Pointe Courte. Varda, born in 1928, was in Toronto in an expansive, agreeable mood. One afternoon, the “Mother of the French New Wave” consented to sit down in a hotel room amidst some quickly gathered journalists and just reminisce. She kicked off her shoes, we took notes, and she spoke fervently of her then eighty years on earth, fifty-four of them doing cinema: personal, left-political, feminist, subtly experimental.
“In France, I started as a photographer and took pictures of Picasso, but I was very shy to ask to go to his studio. I was educated stupidly. I knew nothing of nothing, which also makes you shy. I was scared of men. But I went to Germany to take photos in 1946, I photographed alone in China. I was kind of courageous, thinking I shouldn’t do less than my brothers.”
In the early 1950s, Varda’s ambitions expanded from photography to filmmaking, even though all the French directors were male. “I realized you didn’t have to be strong like a carpenter. A director doesn’t have to do anything but direct actors. Why couldn’t I do that? But I didn’t want to make a career, make a deal, adapt a beautiful book. Most film followed the path of theater, with rich dialogue, classic form, perfect sense. I wanted to use cinema as a language, like with Joyce and Woolf and Nathalie Sarraute. In 1962, I made Cleo from 5 to 7, shocking to the perceptions of viewers, showing subjective time versus objective time.
“I admire those who now go to film school,” Varda said, ‘because at first I was a total autodidact.” Luckily, with La Pointe Courte, Varda wandered into the sphere of two great talents of the so-called “Left Bank School,” filmmakers Chris Marker and Alain Resnais.
Varda: “They were so very bright! They taught me many things. Resnais, who edited La Pointe Courte, said, ‘Your film reminds me of Visconti.’ I said, ‘Who is Visconti?’ They said, ‘See lots of films. There’s a Cinematheque here in Paris. See Vampyr and Ordet by Dreyer, go see Bresson.’ When I met Jacques Demy in 1957, he’d seen Bresson’s Pickpocket three times. We went to see it four more times.”
Thus began her romance with the genial filmmaker of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, whom she married and with whom she had two children. Demy died of AIDs complications in 1990, and Varda has told of his life twice on film, in Jacques de Nantes (1990) and, again, more directly about AIDs in Les Plages d’Agnès.
“The life of a couple is very fragile,” Varda said. “We had ups and downs, and we recovered from some downs. Losing Jacques, he was 59, it’s not like losing someone 12, and then I think of the millions with AIDs in Africa, and female circumcision everywhere. Still, filming Les Plages, I had to go to the pain of feeling his death, to a time when AIDS was always a death sentence. And in the editing, I had to go back again to that. But I decided it should be peacefully told. The world is in very bad shape, but cinema in a way is a peaceful life.
“I don’t try to make my place in the history of cinema, but others place me, because of a daring film in 1954, or because of Cleo from 5 to 7: my little research in black-and-white, about a woman pulled by the hair from death. I’ve done 15 long features, 15 long documentaries, not very much. Some people shoot every day. But being called ‘Mother of the French New Wave’? I don’t care! I love that!’”
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.