Agnès Varda interview: ‘The whole world was sexist!’

Like a cross between Bergman and Björk: Agnès Varda in 1960
Like a cross between Bergman and Björk: Agnès Varda in 1960 Credit: Edouard BOUBAT/Gamma-Rapho/Getty​ Images

This interview first ran in May 2015, and has been republished following Agnès Varda's death at the age of 90

Agnès Varda is often referred to as “the grandmother of French New Wave cinema”. It’s a compliment, of course: a proud assertion of her influence. But I wonder if there isn’t also something a little sexist about the epithet.

She is only two years older than her friend Jean-Luc Godard, after all. Is it because she wasn’t as pretty as the actresses? (No one calls Brigitte Bardot the grandmother of anything.) Varda looks back: “When I was 30 years old they called me ‘grandmother’,” she says. “I started to get old at a very young age.”

The comment is made in a tone of self-mockery – because, as Varda well knows, it would be hard to find someone better suited to the role of batty old lady. We have met in Brighton, where she is installing an exhibition of brightly coloured holiday paraphernalia in the University Gallery, entitled “Beaches, Beaches”. Frisbees are being affixed to windows, with the hoped-for effect of stained glass; a video is being projected through the hole in a pink rubber ring. It is, Varda says, “a hymn to vitamin D”. 

The artist herself is dressed entirely in burgundy: velvet trousers, crepe de chine top, bead necklace, sandals, tights – the whole outfit the same hue, as is the lower half of her pageboy haircut. The top of her head has been left white, so that as she moves about the room, aided by a cane, she looks like a travelling glass of wine topped by a papal cap. We retire to the café for coffee; she jumps the queue, inspects the sweets. She is a mesmerising law unto herself.

Agnes Varda at the Oscars in March

But weren’t the New Wave film-makers sexist? I insist, once we’re sitting down. “The whole world was sexist!” she exclaims. “Cinema was made by men. They were sometimes misogynist…” Varda pauses. “Most of the time, they were. Obviously, like all artists, they had a taste for beauty – for beautiful actresses.” She shrugs, as if to say, ‘But so what?’

In 1958, Varda attended a festival devoted to short films in the city of Tours. She had been a professional photographer for years and had taken beautiful, light-hearted portraits of artists such as Alexander Calder, of fellow photographer Georges Brassaï, and of the great stage actors of the era. She had also already made a feature film, more or less self-taught.

In La Pointe Courte (1955) Philippe Noiret made his first film appearance, as one half of a desolate young couple, battling out their relationship in a fishing town. Their story was intertwined with that of the fishermen. She wanted to show, she says now, that if you are troubled by your personal life you can’t think beyond it. “You can’t tell a private story and a social one at the same time.”

Armed with this slim back catalogue, she came to Tours, and met another director, Jacques Demy, who would become her husband and the person to whom she was closest until his death in 1990. Reporting on the festival for the Cahiers du Cinéma was a third person, a critic who ended up writing in praise of them both: Jean-Luc Godard.

The New Wave had many birthplaces, many midwives and many parents, but one way of locating its origin is this. A producer called Georges Beauregard told Godard he wanted to make cheap, fun films in black and white. Godard gave him Breathless (1960).“Don’t you know any other boys who could do the same?” Beauregard asked. Godard said yes, and recommended Demy. When Beauregard approached him, Demy made Lola (1961), a cheerfully elegant prequel to his high-colour musicals, starring an exquisite Anouk Aimée. “Don’t you know any other boys who could do the same?” Beauregard said again. Demy said he didn’t, but he knew a girl: Agnès Varda. Beauregard told her what he wanted. “You’ve got to do it just like the boys,” he said.

Varda says she couldn’t make another full-length film now – the physical effort would be too much. Her films have always been hard to finance, mainly because, as movie pitches go, they sound entirely insane. “Dirty, grumpy girl goes for a long, furious walk and dies in a ditch” is her own summary of her second-most successful film, Vagabond (1985).

When they come off, she’s more surprised than anyone. Who would have thought that the stringently structured Vagabond, starring a 17-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire, and told in part through witnesses who have seen this drifter passing through, would have been the hit it was? And who would have thought that Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve’s dreamlike performance in Les Créatures (1966) would have found so few admirers? “Another total flop,” Varda says with a shrug when an ill-received film of hers is mentioned. But it all proves, she says, that it’s worth being brave.

With Cate Blanchett in Cannes 

“I make documentaries from time to time, to remind myself of reality,” she says. “It’s like musicians doing scales to keep their fingers working: when you’re in the street, listening to people, you’re forced to be in the service of your subject. In film schools, they all want to be Hitchcock and Truffaut, and you want to tell them: OK, but learn a little about what you can see.” In 2000, she made a film called The Gleaners and I, about people who live off the rejects of others.

“You know,” she tells me, “in films, poor people speak ‘poor people language’, workers speak ‘worker language’, and I think: hang on, what if we had these people who collect crap off the streets speaking, instead of ‘crap collector language’, the way they actually speak? Sometimes they repeat themselves, but they have real things to say, and it’s possible to render the best of them.”

There is no filmmaker alive who has Varda’s combination of grounded social conscience, circus-like outlandishness, and head-on view of death. She’s like a cross between Björk and Ingmar Bergman. And so, when she speaks about the death of Jacques Demy – the cause, she revealed only decades later, was Aids – there are too many layers to trace. As he was dying, she made a lovely film about his childhood, Jacquot de Nantes. “It was a painful and happy experience,” she says now. “I don’t know how to describe it. In the terrible unhappiness of knowing he was going to die, something living came out in the form of this film. With film, I was saying: ‘I can’t get any closer to you than this’.”

For Demy’s funeral, 25 years ago, she took two prints of his brightest and most famous film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, sliced up the tragic farewell scene into individual frames, and left them in a pile at the exit. As people were leaving, they held the tiny celluloid rectangles up to the light, deciding which split-second flicker of Catherine Deneuve’s face they would keep in memory of Demy. One of his editors protested: “You can’t do that”, but Varda insisted that the mourners mustn’t leave empty-handed. As she tells this story it seems to describe the way her life has been made of film. “C’etait très beau,” she says, “très cinéma.”