Agnès Varda has the spirit and strength of a hundred filmmakers. At 87, she’s not reclining on a beach or receding into the shadows of retirement, but exploring her “cinematic life,” as she calls it, with an intensive level of rigor and determination. Currently in Chicago leading a guided tour of her previous work and offering insights into her cinematic philosophy, Varda consistently speaks about filmmaking as both a form of self-exploration and a window of (re)discovery for viewers of all ages.
On Friday, October 16, her films Jane B. par Agnes V. and Kung-Fu Master! open at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York for a one-week run. Jane B. is an almost indefinable film, playing out as a simultaneously sincere and satirical portrait of Jane Birkin, both as cultural icon and woman. Varda’s not joking, however, about the ways women are typically asked to understand themselves after turning 40. Both films are unchained pleas for a truly progressive cinema, both in form and content.
I spoke with Varda about her career-long dedication to hybridizing fiction and documentary, her recent seminars in Chicago, and why, if you live in New York, you’ll have to run, not walk, to see these re-releases.
How did you come to make these two films? Where did the idea come from?
Jane Birkin and I went on a walk and she said, “I’m about to be 40. This is terrible.” And I said, “Oh no no. Forty is the best age for a woman. You are totally a woman, you have been doing things. You have kids. You are beautiful. That’s the exact age where a portrait should be made about you.” So that’s the reason for Jane B. par Agnes V. Then I tried to find the shape of that portrait. And the shape is original, because it was composed, as you know, from films that don’t exist.
Did you intend these films to be viewed as a pair? I can’t imagine watching one without the other.
I think you can see Jane B. alone, because Kung-Fu Master! came out of Jane B. The title [of Kung-Fu Master!] in France is Le Petit Amour, but the American title is very bad because people think it’s a kung-fu film. But Kung-Fu Master! is the name of the video game. In the middle of the shooting for Jane B., [Birkin] said, “I would love to make a scene and a story like this.” But it couldn’t be a sketch. It was too important to the psychology; we couldn’t do it in only five minutes. I couldn’t add it to the other sketches, so it had to be a full film.
You’ve spoken extensively about motherhood and feminism. Did you approach these films thinking about aging as it relates to motherhood, perhaps wanting to make a film with Mathieu [Varda’s son] to explore this further?
It’s not about motherhood, but it was interesting for us that Jane could be with her two daughters and I could be with my son. At the same time, the films were like private jokes. They became about our private enjoyment. And then there are the good actors: Charlotte [Gainsbourg] became a star, as you know; Lou is a wonderful woman who sings and acts; and Mathieu became a film director. So, these kids were still kids, but they all became involved with film after.
I’m interested in the idea of this being a family project, a kind of personal documentary. Your whole career you’ve talked about synthesizing documentary and fiction.
Ah, you’ve got it right. In Jane B., it’s a mixture. But the mixture is its claim. Because when you ask an actress what films she’s done, she always shows you a piece of what she has done and then she speaks. So it allows me to mix fiction and documentary. Which is, as you know, one of my aims, to rock the boat gently, from one side to the other.
Does your interest in putting yourself within the film come from this overlap between the two?
In the film with Jane, she’s questioning me. “How do I perform these little pieces?” Almost like it’s a puzzle. So, yes, sometimes we are together discussing the fiction. It’s like being in the film, making the film, and making a portrait of Jane Birkin, which is also, vaguely, a portrait of me.
I wonder about that last point. How much correlation is there between Agnès Varda in the film and Agnès Varda in real life?
I think it’s the same. It just shows a part of my life, a part of my thoughts. But it doesn’t come to my private life. It deals with my cinematic life in which, sometimes, I expose myself as the filmmaker.
I’m interested in this cinematic life and how it relates to other films. You said in a 1986 interview with Film Quarterly that you had not spoken with a female, American director who understood cinécriture, or cinematic writing. Has that changed since then?
I’m surprised you say that, because I never criticize other people, especially when they try to do their own thing. I was recently speaking about Maya Deren. She had such an original, deep, and artistic cine-writing. I don’t think I’ve said bad things like that. The one I don’t like too much, though, and who was making films like men would, is the actress Ida Lupino. She worked, but I don’t think she had cine-writing. Her films looked like other American films. But take Maya Deren or Barbara Kopple for example. I think they have their own writing—the cine-writing which is, as I always say, a vision of choices. Always true. It’s not the way you write the dialogue, it’s not what you choose to shoot in: 16, 35, black and white, color, whatever. Documentary, fiction, or both. But I think by saying cine-writing, there are about 20 choices that end up being the style of the film. Sometimes a film is written in the editing room, et cetera. So it’s my way of saying how to make statement.
How has this informed your experience teaching at the European Graduate School?
I never taught there, actually.
No? The website says you’re a professor.
What I do there is what I’m doing here in Chicago. Because they know that I have three lives: as a photographer, as a filmmaker, and as a visual artist. I have an exhibition here at the Logan Center. It’s the gallery at the University of Chicago, in which I have my installations. Beautiful setup. I speak and I have excerpts of my pieces, my films, my installations. I introduce my films in this really huge theater and, a little later, I do a Q&A and discuss my exhibition with students. So I’m on duty for the whole week. And I’m enjoying it, because it’s a delightful duty to talk about films. I met with some students yesterday. Some of them told me about their projects and I was able to give them feedback. It’s very interesting, because I learn about how audiences react, in different stages, to different criteria and situations. It’s been an incredible treat.
What kinds of advice are you giving to young filmmakers who want to make challenging films or works that could be called cinécriture?
I explain to them that when I shoot films myself, it’s because I want the freedom of editing, imagination. I want to show how I do the music. In Vagabond, I use music against the rules. I discuss music, editing, writing, and commentary with them. So, I have excerpts that I choose according to what I say or to the questions, because it’s easy to state, but it’s also better to show pieces that make sense to me so the students understand better, maybe, my aims and my way of working. It’s a very nice exercise. It doesn’t teach me, but it brings to me how people of different ages react, especially young people. Students of filmmaking. They come to me and they want to listen and they’re surprised because maybe it’s not the way they thought. It’s very interesting for me, because I’m always trying to understand how, when I do a shot or an edit, it will be taken by young people, 35-year-olds, or people of my age. I have to learn something about how to behave as a filmmaker. And I’m not yet bored. I was invited by Dominique Bluher, a cinema teacher here. She organized my video and told me I could have an exhibition. I feel like I’m really myself with all these questions of cinema, photography, and exhibition. So I feel good. I’m sorry you couldn’t see that, besides the fact that my films are opening.
Do you have anything to say about the films opening in New York?
My films open at the Lincoln Plaza, but for one week only. That’s amazing. If they want to see them, they have to run. If not, the films will be gone. This is a very small street opening. That’s the way it is. It’s a one-week shot.
There’s a line from Jane B. that sticks with me, regarding film aesthetics. You tell Jane at one point, “I prefer daydreams to psychology.” Has daydreaming, or feelings related to it, been one of the driving mechanisms for your films?
I don’t exactly know, because I’m not into organizing too much what it stands to do. When I say I’m not interested in psychology, I exaggerate, because I work a lot on behavior, like I did in Vagabond. With Jane, I have to go through her psychology, because if I can define her, there’s a point where she says she wants to be famous and alone. At that point, she’s said something contradictory. And it’s the same for me. I’m a modest filmmaker, because I do very modest films. And also I’m very happy to be known, because I need people to come and see my films. And to love me. So, the need for being recognized and loved is, at the same, a need to remain discreet and working on the margins. Do you understand me?
Yes, of course. It makes sense, especially with the way Jane B. plays out.
Thank you, thank you for telling me what I say makes sense. Because I often speak to people that don’t see. I have so many things to say when I speak, and it’s very frustrating. You’ve seen my film The Beaches of Agnès, yes? It brings together my need to be a little alone, but mostly speak about other people, to express life through other people, other events, other discoveries. I try to understand how people are different in other places of the world. I have tried to put together a way of living as a filmmaker.