Agnès Varda on 'The Beaches of Agnès'

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Agnès Varda made her first film in 1954 and has now made an honest and playful study of her own life. But is it a documentary?

Meeting a French director as unique as Agnès Varda is something you won’t forget in a hurry. She’s vivacious, spiky, proudly independent and asks as many questions as she answers. Now 81 – and still living in a house on Paris’s Rue Daguerre where she runs her own production company – her new film, ‘The Beaches of Agnès’, is a warm and wry self-portrait. It sees the director of modern French classics such as ‘La Pointe Courte’, ‘Cléo from 5 to 7’ and ‘Vagabond’ adopting a ruminative tone to gently mock her own image while lamenting the loss of her husband, Jacques Demy, the director of ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’, who died in 1990. Oh, and along the way, we watch as this tiny octogenarian single-handedly sails a boat down the Seine.

You’ve said this is your swansong. Is it true?
‘Yes, I guess. It’s been too long, the world is too much. The movie world is very tough. The pressure is too much. I no longer need that.’

You look back over your whole life. Is it a film about memory?
‘It’s the story of one life. Just one life. One little life of one little person. I thought of my kids and my grandkids and made something by which they could remember me. Many old people like to talk about themselves, but I am very alive. I am  very joyful. I love to make fun of myself. I have a very big love for my husband, Jacques Demy. We spent a long time together. Losing him was deeply painful for my children and me. We survived that. There’s no other way. Jacques was… good company.’

One of the most refreshing things is that it looks like it was made with complete freedom.
‘It was. We increased the budget because it took me a year to edit. I had to go from narration to film to editing, and I was always changing my mind. I wanted it to feel free-flowing, but at the same time have a strong structure. It had to be joyful and light. I get to speak about paintings I love and people I love. I feel at ease in the film. I don’t have to defend it. But I have one question for you: is it a documentary?’

I’m not sure. I saw it as similar to what you did for your late husband, Jacques Demy, in ‘Jacquot de Nantes’ [the 1991 fictionalised account of Demy’s childhood], but taking yourself as the focus.
‘No! “Jacquot de Nantes” is pure fiction! You cannot make a documentary about someone’s childhood if the subject is not a child any more! It was written, with dialogue, with children acting out the memories.’

Yes, but in the new film you include fictionalised inserts – children act out remembered scenes.
‘This is an odd film. One could say it’s a documentary, but it doesn’t quite fit. There are documentary elements, but there are also set-ups. So I don’t know what it is. It’s a film.’

Do you think the Agnès Varda who made ‘La Pointe Courte’ [in 1954] would recognise Agnès of today?
‘Yes, I think so. I’m as free as I was and as daring as I was. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a fashionable film. Both this and “La Pointe Courte” mix documentary and fiction, and back then I believed – as I do now – that life is more complicated than art. It’s what interests me the most, to be constantly crossing the border from documentary to fiction.’

This film sees you're more than willing to risk your life for your art.
‘Ha ha! What did you think about the boat? I was so proud!’

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Did it take long to prepare?
‘Oh, it was crazy. We had to hire trucks and a crane, and I was sat out on this boat on the Seine, all alone, getting to see la Tour Eiffel up close.’

Were people shouting at you from the banks?
‘No, no, no. Just people coming along saying, “What the hell is this?! You’re not allowed to sail up the Seine!” You need 12 authorisations. That’s what I love in films. You have to spend an incredible amount of time to end up alone, on a boat, floating down a river.’

A very poignant moment is a close-up of Jacques Demy’s hand.
‘He was sick, and you never really know how to help somebody. Making “Jacquot…” was therapeutic for us.
He liked the idea of a film about his childhood. It was something that occupied us, so we were not just sat in a room waiting for him to die. I say in “The Beaches…” that it’s difficult to express the desire to keep him, to keep Jacques alive. But his texture, his matter, they’re all stored on film. I think they’re beautiful shots. His hair, his speckled skin, his beautiful eyes.’

Read our review of the film

Author: David Jenkins



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