California Dreaming:
An Interview with Agnès Varda
by Genevieve Yue

On the occasion of her 80th birthday, Agnès Varda, the woman sometimes referred to as the “grandmother of the French New Wave,” decided to turn the camera back on herself. The Beaches of Agnès was the result: sprawling, spry, and ever curious, like the filmmaker herself, it revisits a life that, for over 50 years, has been inextricably linked to the cinema that shaped it. In addition to making groundbreaking films like Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961) and Vagabond (1985), Varda has also sustained an impressive career as a photographer and more recently as an installation artist. In 1962 she married the filmmaker Jacques Demy, with whom she stayed until his death in 1990. I met with Varda at the Santa Monica home of Patricia Knop and Zalman King, just steps away from one of her beloved beaches, where she observed matter-of-factly, and with a touch of merry nonchalance, “I was lucky enough in my life to be at the right time in many places.” Here among the sun-dappled collection of 19th-century carousel animals and thick-bodied angels, this grand dame of cinema with the impish grin looked perfectly at ease, equally at home as both jester and queen.

The Beaches of Agnès, appropriately, occasions retrospectives. Los Angeles’s American Cinematheque has been screening a number of Varda’s films in anticipation of the Beaches release, from Jacquot (1990), a moving reconstruction of Demy’s childhood made in the late stages of his illness, to the elegantly observed essay film The Gleaners and I (2000). The program also included several films that Varda made during her various residencies in California, including the “hippie love” film Lions Love (and Lies) (1969), starring Warhol superstar Viva, the documentary Mur Murs (1980), a kind of Gleaners precursor in search of the unnamed creators of Los Angeles’s street murals, and the rare gem Uncle Janco (1965), a short and colorful portrait of Varda’s long-lost relative drifting in the bays of Sausalito. In Beaches, Varda is chastised by Chris Marker (disguised as his trademark cartoon cat, Guillaume-en-Egypte) for having spent the summer of 1968 not on the streets of Paris but in Hollywood. To me she explained: “France was dull, really, and when we came here it was, oh my God, like a shower of freedom, counterculture, the way people would dress, would speak, would have all these love-ins, all these happenings, all these meetings.” Varda’s bright enthusiasm for California was rivaled only by the audience at the Aero Theater, which gave her a standing ovation before the first screening of the series had even begun. Slightly embarrassed, she urged everyone to sit down. “Maybe after,” she quipped.

While details of Varda’s life have always worked their way into her films, The Beaches of Agnès is Varda at her most explicitly autobiographical, though the film is hardly straightforward. She not only looks back but walks back, literally, stepping gingerly across the sands and courtyards of her past. The film travels to the places where her films were shot, and in nearly every locale she constructs new props and sets, as she did previously for Jacquot. Some of these are outright whimsical, like the six truckloads of sand unloaded in the middle of a Parisian street (despite the absence of an actual beach, the gesture recalls a famous slogan of May ’68: “Dessous les pavés, c’est la plage,” or “Under the cobblestones, the beach”), while others are more poignant, like the scenes of Varda’s childhood reconstituted from her family photographs. One of the most touching sequences takes place in the fishing village of Sète, where two adult brothers push a cart through the quiet crepuscular streets. A projector and a screen have been mounted on top of the cart, and as the men solemnly pass through the town, they see, for the first time, moving images of their father that Varda had shot as test footage for her first film, La Pointe Courte (1954).

Varda has always pioneered form in a way that’s almost deceptive, embedding structure deep within the matters at hand. While La Pointe Courte’s Faulkner-inspired split narrative or Cléo’s rigorous structure of time and place are significant formal achievements, what we remember are the ebbs and flows in the relationship of the young couple, or the growing sense of anxiety written on Cléo’s face as she approaches her fate. With Beaches, artifice seems an unlikely tool for documentary, but in showing all parts of the process—the set-ups, the doubts and hesitations, the unexpected rain that comes to wash it all away—she demonstrates how memory is an active, imaginative, and even playful pursuit. As she says at the end of the film, “I am alive, and I remember,” as if memory is intertwined with life itself, not merely what connects us to an irretrievable past, but what propels and gives us courage to move into an uncertain future.

As Beaches amply shows, Varda’s life is inseparable from the films she makes. “My films have been always vital experiences,” she insisted, and while the documentaries she has made encompass a range of social concerns, from the Black Panthers to the women’s movement, they also work on a deeper level, always bearing a sense of the filmmaker herself. Even in her fiction films, Varda is ever present, lending her experiences, shrewd eyes, and warm heart to all that she observes. Looking at others also means putting herself on view, so it is not surprising how, in the beginning of Beaches, the assortment of mirrors arranged in the sand return images of her crew along with her own visage. The set-up echoes an early scene in Cléo, where the titular heroine (Corinne Marchand), trying on hats, gazes at herself in multiple mirrors in a store. Though she seeks narcissistic solace, the mirrors force her to look beyond herself, reflecting images of the saleswomen, other shoppers, and the street outside. The mirror motif also recalls the structure of Vagabond, with the inscrutable Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) pieced together in interviews of people who have encountered her. For Varda, looking in the mirror always reveals others: here it’s Jean Vilar, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Jane Birkin, Jim Morrison, and, above all, Jacques Demy, whose gentle and enduring companionship forms the film’s emotional core.

The greatest joy, however, is the way Varda’s playful spirit enlivens all those around her, including her audience. With good humor and uncompromising honesty, she shares in every discovery and delight, and it’s impossible not to be swayed by her irrepressible charms. Though she’s been called fearless, she bats away any such praise. Looking over her life, she admitted to me of certain events, “Maybe I shouldn’t have done that, I could have done this. So the life is what we did, what we actually acted and really made.” What is most admirable about Varda, though, is her willingness to smile upon the sometimes messy or painful events of the past, to accept them as part of a life exceedingly well lived, which, incidentally, shows no signs of slowing down. When in Gleaners her camera accidentally catches sight of her aging hand, rather than turning away she’s drawn in, fascinated. She recounted: “I was filming this postcard, and my camera went [to my hand], and I thought instead of saying my hands are old with spots, I said, it’s a beautiful landscape. And in a way, it’s a way of being a filmmaker that my own age becomes a landscape.”

In the Gleaners follow-up, Two Years Later (2002), Varda turns over her latest set of finds, from a gleaned carrot in the shape of a heart, or the modest night-school teacher bemused by his newfound celebrity, and in doing so she taps into the enduring connection between movies and the people who watch them. We live in and through films, feel ourselves moved, challenged, and changed by them. Few filmmakers inspire this bond quite as strongly as Varda, who knows firsthand the transformative powers of the medium. For a life so deeply entwined with cinema, however, it’s remarkable how Varda arrived relatively late to the art form, having only seen a handful of films by the time she made La Pointe Courte. Later she discovered the work of Bergman, Fellini, Mizoguchi, and Fassbinder, but she’s glad to have grown into her craft intuitively, always remaining on the fringes of the all-male Cahiers du Cinéma group that would later become the French New Wave. “I think if I had known these masterpieces, maybe I wouldn’t have started,” she reflected. “Because I started off with no influence, no respect to anything, no duty to imitate.” It’s hard to imagine the fiercely independent Varda trying to imitate anyone; harder still to imagine what cinema would have been without her.

One of her most recent installations, glimpsed in the film, is her “cinema house,” a small hut whose walls are constructed, or rather gleaned, from Varda’s The Creatures (1966). Images of Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli stream down the walls in a luminous cascade of celluloid, all from a leftover print of the film. Varda recounts how pleased she was to simply sit inside the “house,” atop a stack of film canisters and receive visitors. It’s a perfect metaphor for her cinema; more than something that’s shown on a screen, it’s everything around a film, all the people it brings together from one shore to another, or one wave to another. And entering into Beaches, or any of her films, is indeed like visiting a dear friend. Varda smiled invitingly as we finished our interview. “The door is open, the light is on,” she offered, “And I’m there sitting quietly.”

This interview was originally published on July 2, 2009.