Agnès Varda has been making films for over 60 years and contrary to what this playfully suggestive photo of her might indicate, Varda did not stand on the shoulders of the (film) giants that came before her. Her first feature, La Pointe Courte, came out in 1954, way ahead of the French Nouvelle Vague films, surprising everyone with its fresh vision and innovative style.
Since then, Varda continued to surprise with every film she made, amounting to an impressive filmography that earned her an Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival this year.
Varda’s films are small, intimate productions, marked by a unique style that we unfailingly came to associate with her. She usually finds her inspiration in real life, her creativity being sparked by things and people around her.
For instance, JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. was born out of a confession that Jane Birkin, the famed singer (“Je t’aime … Moi non plus”), actress (BLOW UP), fashion icon (the Hermes Birkin bag) and longtime muse to Serge Gainsbourg, made to Agnès one day in 1987 when they went for a walk with their children in the park: “I am afraid to become forty very soon.”, said Jane.
Agnès was surprised, “Well you’re wrong! Forty years old for a woman is beautiful. It’s at the peak of her beauty, the peak of her intelligence and her capacity. I really believe that women of forty are wonderful.”
Abandoning the traditional biopic format, Varda puts her rich imagination to work, casting Jane in an array of ever more fascinating, surreal roles. The result? JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. – a luxurious portrait that shows Jane Birkin in all her puzzling, paradoxical complexity. A surreal and captivating essay on art, fame, love, life and children.
Jane Birkin also plays the lead in a charming, bittersweet drama, KUNG-FU MASTER!, a companion piece to the former film, in which she delivers one of her finest performances as a lonely 40-year old woman who finds herself falling in love with a teenage boy.
My interview with Agnès Varda felt as spontaneous and as surprising as her films. Although I had diligently prepared a set of questions I was eager for her to answer, I got so involved in the spontaneous feel of the conversation that I let it take its natural course rather than impose a pre-determined structure on it. Breaching the sensitive subject of film distribution was one of these surprising turns the conversation took. I found myself voicing some serious doubts about the way the industry works, the fact that the gate-keepers of the industry, those who ultimately decide what films will be seen by the larger public, are so uncourageous and so conventional in their choices, and they end up condemning the audience to see only what they think the audience wants to see: mostly uncourageous, conventional material. But is it possible that the gate-keepers are wrong? Could this be the reason why so many big productions fail to impress and fail at the box office nowadays? Is it possible that the audience is bored? that the audience is actually more adventurous and ready to explore something different, something more original, surprising, enchanting, something a bit more challenging?
And when it comes to original, surprising, enchanting and challenging material, there’s no better filmmaker than Agnès Varda to deliver on that!
After a one-week run at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City last month, JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. and KUNG-FU MASTER! are being released in their newly restored 2K version at LAEMMLE ROYAL in LA on November 13.
The following interview with Agnès Varda was taken over the phone on October 14 in French. This is my English translation.
Dana Knight: In Jane B par Agnes V., you created a fascinating array of roles for Jane Birkin to play. The film struck me as a very luxurious portrait of the actress Do you like me using the term luxurious in relation to the film?
Agnes Varda: Yes, I love that you used the word luxurious, it’s a rare word in French and it’s very appropriate here. Because Jane is a woman of many contradictions. She wants to be a poor woman, à la Dickens, but she also wants to play a goddess. She wants to be loved, she wants to play a little girl and then a grown-up woman. She wants to play every role and feel everything. What I like the most about Jane is that she wants us to look at her, to love her, but she also wants to be anonymous, not to be known. It’s very touching, do you agree?
Knight: I do!There are many surprising scenes in the film. I really wasn’t expecting the Laurel and Hardy scene in which Jane is impersonating Laurel. And I guess it was you playing Hardy?
Varda: No, it wasn’t me! Maybe we look alike but it wasn’t me in the scene. Jane plays Laurel but Hardy is played by this extraordinary Italian actress, Laura Betti. It’s a nice idea that it’s me playing the couple with Jane but no, it’s an actress who played in Pasolini films. It’s also her in the bakery scene where she laughs at Jane who is painting a white painting. That was a scandal in contemporary art at the time.
Knight: And it is also her in the scene about unemployed people?What inspired that scene by the way?
Varda: Yes, that’s her also. In all my films, even in comedies, I’m trying to bring in contemporary subjects. At the time, there was a problem with unemployed people, and also the scandal about white paintings. I’m obviously having fun and keeping a light tone because it’s a comedy, but there are truthful bits, there’s a certain sensibility.
Knight: Going back to the surprising scene with Laurel and Hardy, which became Morel and Lardy in your film, Jane says that she was not comfortable in that role. Since it was you that created that role for her, did you expect her to have this reaction, did that surprise you?
Varda: Well, she’s paradoxical, sometimes she likes to show off, sometimes she likes to stay hidden. That’s why she’s so happy to be filmed in deforming mirrors. She says: “What counts is the painter behind the painting, the filmmaker behind the camera”. In other words, it’s a matter of trust, she had trust me in.
Knight: You’re using many art works in this film, you’re placing Jane within the realm evoked by them. What made you choose those specific art works?
Varda: We were in the studio of a painter, he let us have his studio to shoot in. So it was another opportunity to talk about painting, to talk about Salvador Dali. Every scene of Jane B is an opportunity for her to do a different role that she would never do in cinema. Especially Jeanne d’Arc. But what was also interesting is that we also invented a lot of characters. And actually the idea for Kung-Fu Master! came to us while we were shooting Jane B. Jane wanted, all of a sudden, to do this other story, where she is in love with a teenager. But if we had told the story in its length, it would have broken the rhythm of Jane B. So we decided to make a separate film, Kung-Fu Master! When the film was originally released in the US in 1988 or 1989 it was called Le Petit Amour and a lot of critics saw it, Jonathan Rosenbaum among others, they are old now.
Knight: How was Kung-Fu Master! received in the U.S. in 1989?
Varda: Very well, but it’s a shocking film. The critics were a bit shocked, it’s a delicate subject.
Knight: Yes, it’s a very daring film, even for contemporary audiences, I would say.
Varda: With this film, I was trying to understand teenagers. There is a scene at the beginning with Jane in front of a window and you can even see me for a few seconds. I always ask myself the same question about teenagers and their interior world. They are fragile. But I can’t imagine this story happening now because with the internet, and porn films and the wide availability of pornographic materials, teenagers today are not in the same situation as teenagers were 35 years ago. It was the first time we were talking about AIDS in France. So until then we were telling teenagers, “love is beautiful, make love” and in 1987 we suddenly started telling them “be careful, love is dangerous”. This made a big difference in the lives of teenagers.
Knight: Yes but also I’m not sure the teenager in this film is so fragile. I’m thinking of the last scene now, he comes across a bit cynical in the last scene.
Varda: He is cruel, yes. Both these traits exist in him. He’s fragile because of things he does not understand very well, and he’s cruel because he feels suffocated by love. The film is cruel towards Jane’s character because, although a grown-up woman, she is a teenager at heart. That’s why the story is sad, she is rejected by society as if she were a bad person. But she is not a bad person obviously. It’s an interesting film and now that we are talking about it, and maybe other people will see it and talk about it, I’m also a bit sad because of distribution issues, my two films come out at Lincoln Plaza for one week and that’s it. People can see one film one night and the other film the following night. That is very cruel because people don’t decide very fast what film to see. Also for the press, you only have a few days to tell people what films to see, that’s a little cruel too, don’t you think?
Knight: Yes it is, we need to be very alert to what films are being released every week and time our reviews and interviews to correspond with that. Since we’re on the subject of distribution: you say that your films have a small audience because they are small art house films. But this is also a matter of marketing in which the gate-keepers of the industry are very much involved.
Varda: I am lucky to be very well known by cinephiles, very well known and loved by students in every country, I have a little reputation, a lot of people love my films but I don’t know if they are commercial. That’s why I always say, I don’t have a career, I just made films. I am marginal and I am happy to be marginal because I’m very well known in these marginal circles of cinephiles.
Knight: Yes but what I’m saying is that it’s a pity that the larger public doesn’t have access to your films. And access is decided by the gate-keepers of the industry. If they were more daring and willing to take risks, they might have the nice surprise to realise that the larger public would also enjoy your films. Your films are not inaccessible, esoteric, they are very sincere, intimate films.
Varda: Yes, but it’s a matter of distributors, exhibitors and ultimately it’s a matter of money. They all want to make money and that’s why they decide not to screen a film too many times, they want new films all the time. I can’t discuss the system, it is how it is. But I am lucky to have my films shown in public institutions. In April this year, The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York organised a retrospective of my films as part of their Art of the Real programme. Now, the University of Chicago, where I am right now, at the Logan Center, they showed all my films during 15 days. It’s part of a beautiful exhibition that includes all my photographic work, videos and installations as well. It’s something that gives me a lot of pleasure, the exhibition is spread over 3 big rooms in a big gallery at Logan Center and it gives the opportunity to people of Chicago to see my work. And there are a lot of people at the screenings, the films are playing several times not just twice and that’s it.
Knight: Talking about the entirety of your work, one of your recurring themes is female psychology, the feminine subjectivity. You conveyed this so well in cinema and also at a time when portraits of women were not very complex. What was the inspiration for that?
Varda: Maybe I understand women better than men do. But I also did portraits of men, of children. Maybe you saw One Hundred and One Nights, The Creatures. In these I spoke a lot about men, also in Beaches of Agnes. I don’t have the impression that I focused exclusively on women. But it’s true that probably the most well-known portraits that I created are those of women: Cleo, Mona in Vagabond, Jane B. These are very precise portraits of women, and also very warm portraits. Even Mona who is so angry, I like her a lot, she interests me a lot.
Knight: Are you excited to show the restored versions of Jane B and Kung-Fu Master! in U.S. this fall?
Varda: Yes but I would have liked these films to be shown during 2 months, to give the possibility to the people of New York to see it. But the reality of distribution is: both films are playing for one week. And I can’t change the world of distribution. I can change my relationship with the public. For instance, everyone talks to me about The Gleaners and I, all kinds of people. Yesterday at the market there was a cheese merchant who recognised me in the street and told me how much he liked The Gleaners. This means that when people see my films, they understand very well, it’s not a difficult cinema but as you said the problem is access, it’s distribution. But I can’t force cinemas to show my films for longer or show them everywhere. I have to accept that. And I’m glad that so many people write to me, love my films, buy the DVDs. Criterion put out a collection of my Californian films. But I can’t compete with the films they are showing in cinemas now, I’m old enough to be wise, I just go on and make other films.
Knight: By the way, what are you working on right now?
Varda: Right now I’m working on a documentary about the artist J.R. He is a very famous artist and we’re working together on a documentary in France. It will probably be ready next spring. We meet and work for one week every month, because we both travel a lot. And I’m taking my time, I’m not pressured by distributors if you see what I mean, people like my films but no one pays me to do it faster! I will also have an exhibition of my visual art at Centre Pompidou in Paris soon. But now I’m enjoying my time in Chicago.
Knight: You’re not coming to New York this time?
Varda: No, I only passed through New York on my way to Chicago but very fast. I must return in France as I have a lot of work there. But when you come to Paris you should call me. It won’t be this number, but if you open the page Ciné-Tamaris, you’ll find me there, it’s my production company and I have a few people working on my films.
Knight: I know where Ciné-Tamaris is, I found it by coincidence 3 years ago when I was in Paris. The outside display was so fanciful, I thought it’s a vintage shop so I went in. And one of your assistants welcomed me and told me that you live across the street and I should go and visit you. I was so surprised! But I did not want to disturb you.
Varda: Actually, there are a lot of people who come into my editing room because it’s at street level. They come in, they say “Hello”, I tell them, “Please sit down”. And they are total strangers, Australian, Portuguese, it’s very amusing!