Interview: Agnès Varda
Photo by Julie Cunnah, 2015.
Since her 1955 debut feature La Pointe Courte, the work of Agnès Varda has managed to reflect the interior and exterior worlds of her and her subjects in playful, insightful ways, regardless of genre or format (feature or short, digital or film). Her voiceover narration in documentaries like The Gleaners and I (00), The Beaches of Agnès (08), and the five-part series Agnès Varda: From Here to There (12) is direct and conversational, breaking down complex subjects of repurposing in the context of Western capitalism, loss, and art history into understandable and funny pieces. This wry sensibility is also evident in the portmanteau words that pepper these voiceovers, or how she describes her own practice as cinécriture or “cinema writing.” This avowed feminist’s approach isn’t necessarily a refutation of dominant aesthetics, but rather what simply flows forth, depending on where she is in her own life: the challenges faced by the unhappy couple of La Pointe Courte, made when Varda was in her twenties, are geographically and emotionally distinct from the type of problems the divorced, single mother of Documenteur: An Emotion Picture (81) is struggling to find answers to, but both are painfully “real.”
On Saturday it was announced that Varda would receive an honorary Palme d’Or at the close of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which begins on Wednesday. While it’s an impressive accolade—she’s only the fourth director to be given this award—the 86-year-old Varda in my experience has little interest in proving anything to anyone, and still insists on doing everything in a manner that lives up to her own rigorous standards. I note this with the utmost respect: at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s recent retrospective as part of Art of the Real, I spoke with Varda near the end of her shorts program. We were chatting about Ulysse (82) while walking to a quiet place to conduct the interview—in a way that I thought was totally informal—when, upon seeing me pull out my recorder, she suddenly looked me straight in the eyes and asked with surprise: “You’re not [already] recording this? Let’s go!” What follows is our lively exchange, beginning in medias res…
[Varda continues] Each film has its history, its beauty or not beauty, and its meaning. The meaning can change over the years for people who watch the film, because there is a lot of evolution in the sense of history, the sense of understanding. But when you speak about 35 millimeter or DCP or video, it’s unimportant. The film is what it is, but what is different are the people who made the film. I change. I wouldn’t do the same film today about Cuba or about the planters or about women. Each film has a date glued to it. And what we try is to overcome the date and make a meaning that can be more than ’62 or ’61 or whatever. But still, even Cleo from 5 to 7, which deals with a temporal history about being afraid of an illness, being afraid of dying, still has in the film itself a purpose— we include for example the radio broadcasts telling the news of the time. Or in Kung-fu Master!, you have the awareness of AIDS in ’87. I think that we try to escape the limits of history and the time, but still I like to have a point that gives a date to the film, and not make believe that it’s nowhere, no time.
Your 1983 series One Minute for One Image deals with that time-specific aspect. There’s a photograph, followed by someone’s interpretation in voiceover, and then only at the very end you give information about when it was taken, who shot it, and who was interpreting it.
Yes, because as you know, if I tell you it’s a famous photograph—Atget, Cartier-Bresson, Mapplethorpe—you will be impressed. You will say “Masterpiece!” It was important for me not to say who took the picture, and not to say who’s speaking. And people would go: “Oh! I didn’t know he made that kind of photo.” Or “I didn’t know he would say that.” And sometimes people couldn’t recognize the voice. That series is rarely seen because it’s difficult to access now. When it came out, One Minute for One Image was on every night at 11 p.m. just before the news. People were faithful to the series, and then the day after, Libération would reproduce the photo with part of the narration and the name. We were like a team with the TV and newspaper, and we did it 170 times. I worked on it in a hurry every day to made sure we delivered.
I learned a lot about how people can look at an image and load it with different feelings—the same image. Even in Ulysse which you just saw, I leave the photo on screen for 15 to 20 seconds—with nothing—so that as a viewer, you start to question: “What is the goal? Is she dead? What is this shot looking at? What is the man looking at?” Then you build your own view, impressions, story. Maybe you think it’s beautiful or meaningless, and that’s so important. That’s what I worked on in this film. Even if I do my narration, which leads you here and there, then the image comes back with no words and you look at it anew. I don’t know how you, Violet, saw that image of Ulysses.
I thought it was a sad image of absence, the absence of women. I didn’t assign a gender to the goat immediately. There were only these outlines of masculinity, facing away from the camera and not really looking at each other.
See, one of my interpretations is that it’s an image of a father and mother, like the mother lying with a big belly, which is one of the images of motherhood, hot and uncomfortable. And the man standing, looking at the future and the child in between those. What impressed me is that when that child [Ulysses] made the drawing after the photo, he brought the figures together so that little boy is touching the man. In the photo, the boy’s separated from the man. It’s so interesting: nobody wants to be alone. And that child grew up to be a man who doesn’t remember that day, but that child was saying something.
I love that film, and especially that part where the children are talking about what they think. The different meanings they come up with are fascinating.
I like when they say: “Photography is more true.” It’s interesting because it seems obvious that photography is the truth, but it was not obvious for them to look at the image and the painting, and then decide: “It’s more human. It’s true.” I always learn a lot through what people see in films, in images, in whatever. I allow myself some time to express what I had in mind, but that doesn’t mean that people who view the film have to have it. In one of my films that’s about to be re-released, Kung-fu Master!, it’s a story about a woman of 40, played by Jane Birkin, who falls in love with a boy of 15.
With your son, Mathieu Demy.
Yes, played by my son. I purposely separated the scenes with a pause—not silence, maybe some music and noise—just some time for the viewer to react to what he just saw. Is he disturbed? Does he agree? Is it painful or curious? And then we go again. I intentionally gave the viewer the distance to remain himself or herself, and enjoy what they saw and be themselves the way that they look at it. I think it’s very important, but it cannot be in action films, which are very, very [makes her hands shake]—the story grabs you so much that you are just into the story from the beginning to the end. You are hooked. You are addicted. I was trying to make a cinema in which people are not “stolen.” I don’t steal you. I like people to remain themselves in the theater and feel that maybe they’ll enjoy themselves, maybe they’ll cry, but that they’ll have something to say. That seems what’s important to me. Even in Vagabond, you have these witnesses speaking. Then she walks. When she walks, there are no words. While she walks, 13 times in the film for one minute, you have time to yourself to feel something about her. Or maybe you don’t like her. You have no sympathy for her because she is not sympathetic. Maybe you feel sorry for her. Maybe you feel mad at her, et cetera. And I like the idea that you remain yourself, conscious of who you are.
7p., cuis., s. de b., … à saisir
In Vagabond, these testimonies are separated by 13 tracking shots, which reminds me of 7p., cuis., s. de b., … à saisir (84), the short film you did about the doctor and his family living in a hospice. There are similar tracking shots, moving left to right across different windows, that also break up the vignettes.
You see that trees surround the house, like they’re imprisoning the family. It’s not like: “Ah! Beautiful to have a tree in front of the window.” Sometimes, the leaves in the trees blow in a peaceful way. Sometimes when there’s anger, or when the father slaps his daughter, there is a tempest outside. I had to wait to take advantage of the real weather. It’s using the natural movement of nature as an interpretation of what we feel or what they feel or what the character feels. It’s using observation and at the same time the presentation of the image. In itself it says nothing, but if you use it to say something, it says what you wish.
Is that the key to cinécriture?
Cinécriture means “cine-writing.” I say that many times because people say when they speak about a film, they say, “It’s well-written.” They think about the dialogue, which can be well-written or bad. For me, a film is not written by the screenplay or the dialogue, it’s written by the way of the filming. The choices that you have to make between still shot or traveling shot, color or black-and-white, speedy way of acting or slow-motion or whatever, all these choices, and the lens you choose, and the camera you choose, and then the editing, and then the music or not, and the mixing—all these choices all the way through the film, all through the making of the film, that’s what cine-writing is. It’s like the style in a way. I never say “it’s well-written” because I know then people think about dialogue. So, I say, “it’s well cine-written.”
You’re talking about building on an emotion, rather than a story. For someone who maybe wants to unlearn what they were taught in film school, where they emphasize story and having precise motivations for every creative choice, what would you suggest?
It’s not bad that they teach how to express emotion, how there are some tricks—and they are good tricks too—speed up the process of rhythms or to build an emotion or build fear. It’s good to make it well. We have seen Hitchcock films—which are not bad to tell the truth—made with the system that are really organized and masterful. But I’m more touched by people who don’t really use the technique and the system. Some of Cassavetes’ films put me to tears. A Woman Under the Influence is beautifully shot. It’s not that it’s not technique, but it follows emotions more than the trick to make it believable. I think that schools are good to learn. The American system or the French system for the mainstream are good, and they do good films. I really love some films. We had Jonathan Demme visit, and I remember The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. He has a film right now that I’d like to see, Ricki and the Flash, the film he just made with Meryl Streep as a rock singer. Some years later, she comes back to her family that she has sort of abandoned. So I’m sure it’s good. But the same Jonathan some time made some documentaries. And like I said, we are at the service of what we shoot when we do a documentary.
But in a fiction, we are the master—the writer, the author, the king of everything, the queen of everything—even though we are timid and not knowing if we’re doing it well and not sure of what we do. I’m not totally sure, I just do it the way I think it should be, but that doesn’t mean I have the right to do so. I say, when you do a fiction, tell yourself it will go well and it will. Going back to documentary is a school of modesty, and going back to the people that you’ve filmed, and listening to them. They have a lot to say. Sometimes it seems stupid. Sometimes they think you don’t want to even hear, but that’s what teaches us. It teaches us that we know nothing about the world. Everybody has something to tell… I really like Ulysse. Ulysse is such an interesting consideration about what an image is. Did you see it that way?
Agnès Varda: From Here to There
Yes, definitely. I wanted to ask you, because you get into the subject of using a still image versus a moving one a little bit in the TV series From Here to There, in the first episode.
Yes, and I speak about the photo in this.
Yes, and you demonstrate the difference between still photography and moving images for the viewers. When you’re creating a documentary, how do you know—
Yes, but how do we know about people? When I took that image, another one on a terrace, I [took a] snapshot. And I asked myself: why did he come in that time and that place? Why did I happen to do this and get six people in the image? The little boy with the parents, a woman taking a snapshot, a woman and a man, maybe they meet. They didn’t know themselves at all. I used my imagination [for what happened] before the snapshot [was taken].
Once, at a film school, they gave the students the same image of the terrace, and asked them to invent a screenplay from that image, without showing them mine. And my interpretation could be true, could be totally fake, we will never know, because that was in ’54, and I will never know—’56 I think. It’s not a question of memory. I didn’t know. I should’ve asked at the time. “OK, do you know each other? What is your name? How old are you?” which is not the case. Now it’s become fashionable to take an agency photo, analyze it and ask, “Hey, you see that, think it over. In the corner, you see that? OK, this is a shot that we took in the streets of Hanoi.” And then, what do we see in it? What could we imagine?
We are interpreting all the time, and cinema and photography are a reproduction of reality. It’s not reality, it’s a reproduction. And the way we look at it, we make another step, by interpreting what we see, and discovering meanings that maybe were never in that image or never in the situation. But with a simple situation, you can make it a drama, because you noticed she had a strange look and you start to build some meaning. I think besides cinema and photography, everybody’s relationship with images is very important. What you build is based on your own personality, no?
Yes, definitely. And I think that’s also true of music. To return to Ulysse for a moment, you used the music from La Pointe Courte. In the film, you are talking about how you have a very distinct memory of making La Pointe Courte, but you don’t remember the motivations behind that photo, which was taken the same year.
Yes, but that’s why I made the film, because the image was questioning me. I had the painting of the boy in my closet. He remembers the painting as an adult, because it was in my place. Look at the other man [Fouli Elia]: he remembers his shirt, his shoes. And he doesn’t remember who he was. We have strange ways of dealing with memory. We remember details, things of no importance, I would say.
The Gleaners and I
Would you talk briefly about the decisions, or your philosophy, behind choosing music for your documentaries?
It depends. Sometimes it’s better silent, as it is. On some documentaries, it fits the subject, like in the Gleaners [which features Varda rapping]. I know all these people who rap. They’re rap singers. They are on the side of contestation. They are on the side of being mad at society. They are the side of recovering what’s being wasted. They are the ones who have been related clearly to the gleaners, so I asked [who could] do it. I gave them some words, and they rapped about what it is if you have nothing and have to find something.
I try to understand what fits the subject. For Ulysse, the music of La Pointe Courte fit perfectly because it’s the same era and feelings. For Kung-fu Master!, I had very sweet music by Joanna Bruzdowicz, the same woman who did Vagabond—very strong, very difficult music. We even called it “difficult music,” but it’s beautiful because I hate when the music is just accompanying the action. Sweeping violin and then love, and then, boom, boom, boom for fear. So with Vagabond, I separated the music. It’s only when she walks, so you could only hear the music, and her steps on different material in the field, on the street, on the dry leaves, on the sand, so that we know the material she walks on and the music, nothing else. The action isn’t underscored by the music. I thought about all these things, and in many films I thought of a way to use the music to push with the same feeling.
And with that, Varda was whisked away to take questions after a screening of Salut les Cubains (63). The theater was packed.
Violet Lucca is the web editor and digital director at Harper’s magazine and a member of the New York Film Critics’ Circle. She was formerly the digital producer at Film Comment.