Agnès Varda

The visionary French director sends love from rue Daguerre, via her affectionate film portraits

Text by Holly Brubach
Portraits by Alasdair McLellan
Issue n° 18, Autumn & Winter 2018

At 90, Agnès Varda suddenly finds herself exalted as a role model for women in film; a fashion icon; loved by the art world — never mind her 40 films as a pioneering director. In the past 18 months she has received an Oscar, been nominated for another, and created a new artwork for the Liverpool Biennial.

Her films, often personal, always playful and with a keen affection for those she documents, have disrupted convention. More than anything, through her militant gaze she has shown us the world.

Agnès Varda keeps her Oscar in the kitchen, on the counter, in a spot that might otherwise be occupied by a bowl of fruit or a toaster. The kitchen, Agnès told an interviewer in 2002, 15 years before the Oscar came her way, is “a very female realm. I’m not saying that we’re all cooks or cleaning women, but we women feel comfortable in the kitchen.” She works at the kitchen table, where her children, Rosalie and Mathieu, did their homework, and where Mathieu, when he drops by now, reads the paper. Let other people put their Oscars on the mantelpiece or high on a shelf, as the centre of a little shrine. Agnès lives with hers, in the room that functions as the heart of her house, a single-storey building painted four shades of pink – the same house she has lived in since 1951, before making her first film.

A familiar figure for decades on the indie circuit, Agnès has only recently ascended to a higher degree of celebrity. She’s a fashion icon (“At 89, Agnès Varda Stopped Our Hearts in Gucci,” Vogue’s US website raved about her red-carpet ensemble, a rose-printed tunic and trousers bordered in stripes). She’s a role model for women in film, exalted as a pioneer in Hollywood now that the #MeToo movement has toppled a handful of kingpins. She’s an art-world darling, mounting installations at international fairs, galleries and museums – this summer in Paris and Tokyo and at the Liverpool Biennial.

In interviews and public appearances, Agnès these days plays a late-stage version of herself, as a plump, grandmotherly, eccentric artist dressed in shades of purple (“Getting older, colour does me good”) with her signature bowl-cut, dip-dyed hair – silver at the crown, burgundy in a halo around her face. Small in stature, with a disproportionately large presence, she speaks with intense focus, alternating between her native French and remarkably supple English, seasoned with felicitous second-language turns of phrase. She had begun the day we met, in June in Paris, with chemotherapy. Now 90, she has had her share of medical tribulations, including two hip replacements and an earlier diagnosis of cancer – information she doesn’t volunteer but provides when asked, as mere statements of fact, with no self-pity and not the slightest plea for sympathy. “It’s OK,” she says. “It’s fine. I decided I should put the accent on what I love to do.”

Agnès is almost done promoting her most recent film, Visages Villages (Faces Places), out this month in the UK. A collaboration with JR, a 35-year-old French street artist, the film documents their travels around the French countryside in a van equipped with a giant printer; they meet people and photograph them, then mount their larger-than-life-size portraits on buildings, shipping containers, a barn. They’re an odd couple, Agnès and JR. Introduced by Rosalie, they promptly decided to work together. “It was friendship at first sight,” JR says in the film. Over the course of their on-camera collaboration, we come to know them as they come to know each other.

Though Faces Places received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary, Agnès’s Oscar is for lifetime achievement. She regards it as a consolation prize of sorts. “I’m flattered, but not that much,” she has said. It’s the latest in a string of prizes and distinctions – others have been given by the film festivals in Cannes and Locarno, the European Film Academy, and Harvard, where she delivered a series of lectures as a Norton Professor – that recognise her career in its entirety, as if it were time for her to set it on a scale, weigh it and retire.

But retirement seems to be nowhere on Agnès’s to-do list. She’s editing a new film about her work, Varda par Agnès, intended to take the place of the many lectures she’s been giving and relieve her of the need to travel so much. “This film will be travelling… and I will stay home!” she says. Varda par Agnès is along the lines of a masterclass, “but I hate the word ‘master’ and I hate ‘class’.” Instead, she calls it her “testimony”, documenting “what I wanted to do for each film. Whether I succeeded or not, what was the project?”

Has her newfound fame made her life any easier? “Not at all,” she says. “Nothing has changed. I still have difficulties to find money.”

Rosalie, who acts as her producer, tells me she finds this “incredible”. “You would think,” she says, “with all that has been going on, it would be easier to produce new projects, but no.” Agnès and JR started Faces Places without knowing if or where they would find the money to finish it. In the end, they forfeited a percentage of their own fees to get it done.

Agnès Varda was photographed by Alasdair McLellan at home on rue Daguerre in Paris, France.

Born in 1928, in Ixelles, a suburb of Brussels, Agnès fled the German invasion of Belgium when she was 12 along with her Greek father, her French mother and her siblings; she was the middle child of five. The family resettled in Sète, a fishing village in the south of France, her mother’s hometown and eventually the location for her first film, La Pointe Courte, in 1954. By that time Agnès had moved to Paris, where she studied literature and psychology at the Sorbonne, followed by art history at the École du Louvre and photography at the École technique de photographie et de cinématographie on rue Vaugirard. She found work as a photographer, taking family portraits, wedding photos and souvenir pictures of children with Santa Claus at a large department store until she was hired full-time by the Théâtre National Populaire.

There were a number of female filmmakers in the industry’s early years, before sound, but by the 1950s they had vanished. The top jobs were occupied by men. Where did Agnès find the audacity to direct? By her own count, she had seen no more than 10 films. Naive, she claims, and unfamiliar with the precedents widely regarded as masterpieces of the form, she didn’t know enough to be intimidated. She wanted to make a film that she would want to see. “I was irritated because, in the few films that I had seen, it always seemed to me that [they] were preoccupied with dramas, crises, things that happened,” she told an interviewer seven years later. “We see stories where the couples divorce or fight or… a lover arrives or… one of the two dies. I find that too many things always happen.” She wanted to capture instead the stalemate that sets in “when the people no longer love each other quite enough, but you see that they still love each other.”

Agnès financed La Pointe Courte, made on a “very tiny little budget” of roughly $14,000 (at a time when a typical film cost more than 20 times that amount), with a small inheritance from her father and a loan from her mother. She formed her own production company, Tamaris Films – it became Ciné Tamaris in 1977 and is still the entity behind all her work – which enabled her to circumvent any authority issues she might otherwise have encountered as a woman in charge on a film set. The technicians, she says, respected her because she understood light and spoke their language.

La Pointe Courte, with its stark black-and-white, artfully composed imagery, has been hailed in retrospect as a forerunner of the French New Wave, and though she disavowed any connection to the movement and its theories, the film staked Agnès’s reputation as an innovator. Here, as in most of her work that followed, she seems oblivious to categories, blending fiction and elements of reportage typical of documentaries. Inspired by William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, a novel whose structure alternates between two storylines that never converge, La Pointe Courte contrasts a couple from Paris, played by actors reciting high-flown, literary-sounding dialogue, with actual inhabitants of the town, improvising conversations in the local vernacular.

In what would become a running theme in Agnès’s work, place is integral to personal identity. Only the male lead, from Sète, can fathom both the life in Paris that the woman represents and the life of the town’s residents that he has left behind. His position must have paralleled Agnès’s own at the time, as a native daughter who had moved from a remote province to the capital, finding kindred spirits among the city’s artists and intellectuals while never renouncing her affinity for the people back home.

The response to the film was mixed, some of it predictably dismissive on sexist grounds. “So much intellectualism in a young woman is distressing,” wrote Jacques Siclier, a respected critic. François Truffaut, not yet established as a filmmaker himself, couldn’t resist a snide remark on Agnès’s resemblance to her leading man.

Bonjour! Agnès has lived in her colourful house in the 14th for 67 years. It doubles as a production office and shop where her films can be purchased. Visitors have also been known to catch Agnès at work.

In the films that followed, she embarked on a self-taught course in directing, setting herself assignments. First, time: in 1962’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7), she explored the difference between 90 minutes as measured by a clock and as experienced by a woman awaiting the results of a cancer biopsy. Then, colour: in 1965’s Le Bonheur (Happiness), she used lush greenery bursting with flowers, evoking the paintings of Renoir and Monet, as the incongruous backdrop for a philandering husband, his family and a disturbing denouement. And, later, travelling: in 1985’s Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond), Agnès tracks a young woman named Mona, living as a drifter, as she moves consistently from right to left across the frame, counter to the way our eyes move across a page. This creates an impression, however subliminal, of resistance – a feeling that Mona is going against society’s tide. It’s the kind of carefully considered formal device that’s typical of Agnès, so subtle as to go unnoticed.

Over the course of nearly 40 films – features and shorts – Agnès has disrupted the conventions, mixing film and video, colour and black and white, documentary techniques and fiction, still photography and motion, “real people” and actors. “I don’t want the world to be segregated,” she says. “For me it’s necessary to reconcile all this because I love it all. I’m trying to do work that’s multidisciplinary and open to experiments.”

The result is often personal, sometimes intimate, with an occasional homemade quality. In Uncle Yanco (1967), an 18-minute account of her finding a Greek uncle she had never met living on a boat in Sausalito, California, we watch Agnès embrace him through a big red cellophane heart held by two children. From time to time, she veers off into sentimentality, with no apologies. With a range that runs from whimsical humour and fond observation to pointed social commentary and silent grief, Agnès seems at ease with film as a form for expressing any thought, idea or emotion, with room for the occasional poetic digression. “I am a woman working with her intuition and trying to be intelligent,” she said in an interview in 2009. “It’s like a stream of feelings, intuition and joy of discovering things. Finding beauty where it’s maybe not. Seeing.” In Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès), a 2008 film that functions as an autobiographical essay, the director walks backwards on the sand, as if rewinding her steps, and narrates her own story, in which her life and her career are so intertwined that they merge in the telling.

In 1958, Agnès met Jacques Demy, a fellow filmmaker who, over the next 10 years, would go on to direct his first feature, Lola, starring Anouk Aimée as a cabaret singer, and the two movie musicals for which he is best known: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort). In 1962, they married, and Demy adopted Rosalie, who was five at the time (her father was an actor with whom Agnès had been involved). The family moved to Los Angeles in 1967, where they lived for two years while Demy made Model Shop for Columbia Pictures and Agnès made a series of shorts about aspects of American culture that piqued her curiosity – the Black Panthers, hippies, outdoor murals by Southern California street artists. In 1972, back in Paris, Agnès gave birth to their son, Mathieu, now an actor and film director.

For her next film, she chose a subject that would allow her to work close to home while she raised a toddler. It was a documentary about the shopkeepers in her street, rue Daguerre, in the 14th arrondissement. She brought her own electricity, via a 90-metre cable she ran through her front door’s letter box. The New Yorker called Daguerréotypes “one of the great modern documentaries” and said it established a new genre: “affectionate anthropology”. Agnès and Demy admired each other’s work, though her films bear no resemblance to his. Rosalie says her parents’ work presented “a perfect balance: Agnès, for radical films and feminism, between fiction and documentaries; Jacques, for poetry and magical films, reimagining reality.”

Agnès and Demy separated for much of the 1980s. Soon after they reconciled, he was diagnosed with Aids. “We had planned to grow old together,” Agnès says, still sounding stricken at having their future together taken from her. Increasingly debilitated, Demy stayed home, writing about his childhood, showing her the pages at night. When she told him his memories would make a good film, he told her she should make it, he didn’t have the strength. So she directed Jacquot de Nantes on location in his hometown, in the garage where he worked as a boy. Demy was there during the shoot. He died, at 59, in 1990, 10 days after they finished filming. Jacquot de Nantes, their first and only collaboration, is heartbreaking in its attempts to preserve what Agnès could of his presence, through extreme close-ups of his hair, the skin on his arm, his eyes. “It was a way of filming to be near him,” she says.

I first saw L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) soon after it was released, in 1976, and I remember thinking that I had never seen another film like it – so forthright about women’s choices, including scenes in an Amsterdam abortion clinic, and so unapologetic in its crusade for equal rights. It made me realise there was a whole realm of human experience – women’s, to be precise – that movies were missing.

The film is, implausibly, a musical – or, rather, a film in which one of the main characters belongs to a band of feminist troubadours who tour small towns, entertaining bewildered citizens with songs about a woman’s right to control her own body. Just as comedians tell audiences what they don’t want to hear by making them laugh, Agnès decided that the feminist message, which ran the risk of coming off as truculent and shrill, “sounds better when you sing it”. The men in One Sings come and go; it’s the women’s friendship that sustains them as they struggle to invent their lives. I doubt that either Agnès or most members of her audience at the time thought we would still be fighting many of the same battles 40 years later. Some things changed; a lot hasn’t. The film was rereleased this summer, dedicated to Rosalie.

Agnès, who describes herself as a “feminist militant”, was a signatory of what one newspaper dubbed “the manifesto of the 343 salopes”, or sluts – distinguished Frenchwomen from all walks of life (Simone de Beauvoir wrote the text) who, in 1971, made a public declaration. “We’ve had abortions. Judge us,” Agnès sums it up. She had recently returned from California, where activists were more vocal and the movement was farther along than it was in France. Humour was “a central, essential part” of feminism back then, she says; there was a lot of laughing. This current moment of feminist reckoning has deep roots, Agnès notes. “That started years ago – helping women to say what they wanted, to get them out of their silence.”

“In this misogynist culture,” Agnès told Ms. magazine in 1978, “women have been exploited by so many ‘masters’ in their ‘masterpieces’ to express the male artists’ own troubles. Look at Bergman – a great filmmaker. But all his women are consumed with his anxiety.” The only remedy is more art by “a great variety of women,” she claimed. The movement would need radical lesbians, theoreticians, angry women… Men told Agnès, “Ah, finally. We’d love feminists if they were all like you.” And she replied: “No! You must take me with all the others. We come together.”

After One Sings, feminists claimed Agnès as one of their own. Cléo from 5 to 7 was canonised for presenting a female protagonist whose experience is the film’s subject, more than a decade before Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay would introduce the notion of “the male gaze”. We see the world through Cléo’s eyes rather than simply seeing her in it.

“I don't allow myself to judge.”

Le Bonheur, however, proved more problematic. (On the British Film Institute’s web page titled “Where to begin with Agnès Varda”, Le Bonheur appears under the heading “Where not to start”.) The film opens with a vision of a happy family – a man in love with his wife on a picnic in the countryside with her and their two small children. Agnès cast Jean-Claude Drouot, the star of the popular television series Thierry la Fronde, and his real-life wife and children, who were not actors. “It was so natural, the way they behaved,” Agnès says.

In the film, he’s a carpenter; she’s a housewife and seamstress. He falls into an affair with a young woman who works at the post office. On another picnic, he tells his wife of the affair, explaining that he still loves her – this new development simply brings him additional happiness. The wife goes for a swim. Is it a suicide or a drowning? Agnès leaves the question open. He marries the other woman, and in the final scene, they walk in the woods with the children, wearing matching jumpers – the sweet picture of a happy family, with a metallic aftertaste.

In the ensuing uproar, Agnès was attacked for endorsing her main character’s behaviour or, at the very least, letting him get away with it. “He’s not immoral, he’s amoral – innocent and egotistical,” she explains. But in a film by a feminist director, I argue, we expect the wife to walk out or the husband to get his comeuppance. “We can’t defend women systematically,” Agnès replies. “These were women, both of them, who were typical – modest, ready to take care of the children and cook, full of love, trying to understand what love is. It was an era that existed. And I said something terrible: that each person is unique but replaceable. That’s the idea. It’s true and a little sad.”

Le Bonheur has lately come in for reconsideration as Agnès’s commentary on women’s magazines of the time and the ideal of a happy home that they projected. Rebecca DeRoo, in her book Agnès Varda: Between Film, Photography and Art, calls attention to Agnès’s montages of disembodied female hands busily sewing, cooking, ironing, tending the children – all women’s tasks – and their resemblance to advertising images of the period. It’s a subtle connection, one many viewers miss, but it’s Agnès’s indictment of society and its ostensibly harmless methods of training women to serve men’s needs. “People want to please each other, men and women alike,” Agnès says. “And that desire is so natural that it can be sometimes quickly perverted. For those of us whose expectations have been formed by the conventions of Hollywood storytelling, Agnès’s films offer a rare lesson in ambiguity. There is no justice in Le Bonheur. The kiss we’re waiting for at the end of Cléo from 5 to 7 never comes. Agnès refuses to follow the textbook formulas, to play psychologist or fill in a backstory that could account for her characters’ actions, to signal which are the bad guys and which the good, to play God or deliver retribution. “I don’t allow myself to judge,” she says.

Watching her work, you realise just how many other films function as fairy tales for adults, reassuring us that life is fair, that virtue gets rewarded, that the lonely find love. Agnès doesn’t traffic in all that. No wonder she hasn’t been recruited to direct the next Mission: Impossible. She has built an audience on her own terms.

Kelley Conway, the author of a scholarly study of Agnès’s work (titled simply Agnès Varda) and a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin, says that in an industry still relatively closed to women, “Varda stands out for having managed to break through, make innovative experimental films and keep working.” Women in the courses Conway teaches admire Agnès, and many are inspired to go into film as a career. The need for more women in the field, in more positions of authority, has been made conspicuous by the #MeToo movement.

“I don’t care about Harvey Weinstein, if he’s in jail or not,” Agnès says. But the scandal surrounding him “came on time because it made noise and people kicked.” To her mind, having more women in film is progress but not the solution. “There is a Hollywood side of the problem, but the problem is much bigger,” Agnès says. “Women are badly treated in the Métro, in factories, in offices, in institutions, everywhere.” Of the French branch of the #MeToo movement, Agnès continues, “I don’t like #BalanceTonPorc” – which loosely translates as “Squeal on the pig”. “I hate balance, I hate the porc,” she adds. “It’s true that sometimes men behave like porcs, pigs. But also cops behave like pigs. So the problem about women is not pigs, it’s this: is it possible that men and women decide to have another relationship in the everyday world?”

Agnès Varda has been styling her hair in its signature duotone bowl cut since 1998. For these portraits, she is wearing her own clothes.

On the final day of her installation at the Galerie Nathalie Obadia, in the Marais, Agnès and I sit talking on a sofa in the director’s office. Since 2003, she has been making art, often repurposing footage and materials from her films, in a kind of third act following her careers as a photographer and director. People file past on their way from the front gallery, which is occupied by a small cabin with a brick base and a metal frame like the skeleton of a greenhouse, strung with ribbons of film (an obsolete 35-millimetre print of Le Bonheur) in place of the glass. They are heading for the back room, where small models – of the boat in La Pointe Courte, of Mona’s tent in Vagabond – incorporating strands of 16-millimetre film are displayed on pedestals. A man enters, sees Agnès, and smiles.

“Do we know each other?” she asks.

“No,” he says, “but I know you.”

“I don’t see well,” she explains, “so I don’t recognise the people I know.”

In Faces Places, Agnès’s macular degeneration becomes material as JR choreographs a group of people standing on a broad flight of stairs holding placards that form an eye chart. He directs them to move the letters gently up and down to create an effect similar to how Agnès sees. The loss of vision, tragic for any filmmaker, has in her case not only a practical but also a metaphorical aspect. Because one of the things that sets Agnès’s films apart is that she sees people, including those who, thanks to the society and the culture we live in, have been rendered otherwise invisible.

“Film is a great medium for enabling an audience to experience the world from a different point of view – to understand from the inside out what it might feel like to be, for example, a female vagabond,” says Clio Barnard, the British director (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant, Dark River), whose own films are situated in neighbourhoods and families that have fallen off the map.

Much has been written lately about income disparity in Western countries, but there’s another factor that separates us one from another: call it the fame divide. On one side are celebrities – film stars, musicians, athletes, politicians, fashion models and self-styled stars of the digital age with a presence online and in the minds of a legion of followers. On the other are people in manufacturing and service jobs, leading ordinary lives devoid of Instagram glamour, overlooked and of no apparent interest. Agnès is interested in them, though, as she was interested in the fishermen and their families in Sète, the shopkeepers in rue Daguerre, the people who scavenge for food and other castoffs in Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse (The Gleaners and I).

Faces Places is her latest monument to the anonymous: a chemical factory employee facing the abyss of retirement, the wives of dockworkers, the man who rings the church bells. Her meetings with them might easily have been one-time encounters, but a year later, Agnès knows that the postman’s picture is still there on a wall along his route, and that Jeannine, the last remaining tenant in a row of miners’ cottages (who has since been successfully evicted) was the star of the film’s screening in her town, where her family proudly filled two rows of the cinema. Agnès also knows that the dairy farmer who burns the horns of his baby goats to make them less combative is angry over the way he was portrayed. “He says they don’t suffer, that it takes 20 seconds, and it’s true. But the point is that he doesn’t believe it’s important to respect the integrity of the animal. In the story he looks bad because the woman who also raises goats keeps the horns on,” Agnès says, clearly dismayed that the man feels misrepresented. “He wrote to me. Maybe I should speak to him.”

Having met these people and been entrusted with their stories, Agnès feels indebted to them. “When you make fiction, you want an actor to do this or that. You are the master of your story. But when you do a documentary, the subject is more important than your position as the director. You are at the service of the subject – you’re not the big person. The form obliges you to modesty.”

“When you do a documentary, you are at the service of the subject — you're not the big person.”

Agnès seems genuinely curious about anyone and everyone. Rosalie contends that this is the secret to her longevity. The other day, Agnès tells me, she was looking for a little house for somebody. “And a woman said, ‘Ah, you are Agnès,’ and I got her whole life in 10 minutes, everything – when they built, her kids, her husband, he died, she is lonely, et cetera. I was quietly listening. She’s a widow. Maybe she didn’t talk to her neighbour in a few days and she needed to speak.”

For “The Widows of Noirmoutier”, a gallery installation that debuted in 2006 at the Fondation Cartier in Paris and has since travelled the world, Agnès interviewed 14 women from the town where Demy went camping as a boy growing up in Nantes and where he and Agnès bought and restored a windmill. Like her, the women had lost their husbands. A large screen is surrounded by 14 smaller screens, one for each widow; headphones on 14 chairs transmit each woman’s individual three-to-four-minute audio. The sense of loss is cumulative as they confide in Agnès the details of their lives alone. She asks them which side of the bed they sleep on. “Some say, ‘I didn’t move from my place; the other side is empty.’ One said, ‘I took his place because he had a better view.’” And what about Agnès, who has been a widow for 27 years? “I’m mostly in the middle now, but I still feel that that side is his side.”

She seems remarkably sanguine about ageing. Is that, I wonder, because in France people are less obsessed with youth? “No,” she says. “It’s me. I think it’s interesting to see what happens to you, good or bad. That’s part of the process of being alive.” When her hands changed, she told her grandchildren (there are five), “Look, it’s a landscape,” with veins as rivers and knuckles as mountains. “The question is how it looks. I don’t have the feeling that it’s ugly.”

Does she believe in life after death? “Oh, God, no,” she says. “I’m part of nature. I’m delighted to become soil and dust. If I would dare, I would do like some Muslims do – just be wrapped in a sheet and put in the ground.” Instead, she’ll be in a grave at the Cimitière du Montparnasse, beside Demy.

In the meantime, there’s work to be done. Agnès knows that directing alone, consuming as it is, isn’t enough. She has bought the rights to her films and restored and rereleased many of them, to make sure they don’t disappear. Kelley Conway, the film professor, says Agnès is “unusually gifted at keeping her works in the public eye, in people’s memory, in film scholarship. She understands the importance of going to festivals, talking to the press, letting scholars have access to her archive.”

For all the professed ingenuousness around her initial foray into filmmaking, you can’t accuse Agnès of thinking small. As she told the audience at a recent British Film Institute lecture, “I didn’t want to be a woman who makes films. I wanted to invent cinema.” And so she has. The enormity of Agnès’s accomplishment is her contribution to the form she loves and a gift to us all.