Agnès Varda's last interview: 'I fought for radical cinema all my life'

What are the strongest memories of your childhood?

My parents named me Arlette. and I changed it to Agnès when I was young. I didn’t like it because I don’t like names with “ette” – you know, it looks like a little girl’s name. Jumping, charming and jumping. I didn’t feel like being like this. So I chose Agnès.

You’ve lived in the same house since the 1950s. How has it changed?

When I moved in, it was disgusting. Nothing was sanitary; there was not even a shower. Little by little, I made it better, and when Jacques [Demy, Varda’s late husband] came to live with me, we made it even better. Now it has a little garden, and I have three cats. It’s like a palace!

What inspires your work?

Mostly, reality inspires me. I did a lot of films with simple people. My first film called, La Pointe Courte, was with fishermen. And when I made The Gleaners and I, it was so important to put a finger on the huge waste of our society. An incredible waste.

Corinne Marchand in Cleo from 5-7

Corinne Marchand in Cleo from 5-7

The Gleaners and I was ahead of its time in its eco-consciousness.

I try to capture what is, in French, l’air du temps. As a visual artist, I do a lot of recycling. I don’t know if you heard, but I build big shacks with the actual composite prints of my films. The last one I did [in 2018] was about the film Le Bonheur.

How do you feel about being called a New Wave pioneer?

“The grandmother of the New Wave!” I found it funny, because I was 30 years old! Truffaut made The 400 Blows and Godard made Breathless, but I had done that five years before with [1955’s] La Pointe Courte, my first film. When I was younger, people were inventing a new way of writing – James Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner. And I thought we had to find a structure for cinema. I fought for a radical cinema, and I continued all my life.

Is it important for you to tell stories about women?

Well, Cléo is a woman. But, you know, I’ve fought with a lot of women for women’s rights. I made a film about women’s rights, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t [1976]. But we cannot say, “We won, that’s it,” because the struggle for women’s rights is still going on. It’s getting slowly better. Now they say to the festivals: “you should have the selection committee half women, half men.” Why should it be chosen only by men?

Varda with husband Jacques Demy

Varda with husband Jacques Demy. Photograph: Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

I heard Madonna was interested in remaking Cléo from 5 to 7.

Madonna was touched by the story of Cléo [a story of a women waiting for a cancer diagnosis], and she asked a woman to adapt the screenplay for her. It was OK with me. But her mother had cancer and died, and she quit the project. If I had remade it in the US at the time, I thought it should be a black woman being afraid of Aids – in those years, Aids was such a terrible threat. I would have loved to make it with Whitney Houston.

I heard that you were close with Jim Morrison.

I admired him a lot. Jacques and I met him in the 60s in Los Angeles, and we saw him become a star. He had been learning cinema, and knew all our films. We were four people at his funeral, at Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris. When artists die early, they become idols even more.

How has technology impacted your film-making?

In the year 2000, it was a change of century, and I changed my life in a way. I discovered little [handheld] cameras, and I started to understand that I could film alone. That’s how I made The Gleaners and I. When you approach people who eat what they find on the floor, you cannot be with a big crew. I didn’t want to frighten them.

I’m a discreet person, but I can do crazy things. For the Venice Biennale in 2003, I did a big triptych called Patatutopia – I became the specialist of heart-shaped potatoes. I wore a potato costume made of resin to the opening. I wanted to be noticed. Now I’m noticed because of my hair. It should be white, and I made it a little fantasy by giving it another colour. That’s how I’ve been named punk. My grandchildren called me “Mamita punk” when they were small. Sometimes I do things that are not really the right way, because I’m daring in a way.

Vagabond is a punk, counterculture film …

No, this was not punk. This was the people on the road. [Lead actor] Sandrine Bonnaire was not even 18 – very gifted, and naturally rebellious. I’m glad, because that film is very realistic about: “How do you behave when you have nothing? Where do you go? What do you do with your anger?” Vagabond made money, but none of my [other] films ever made money.

Agnes Varda accepted an honorary Oscar in 2017 as presenter Angelina Jolie looked on.

Agnes Varda accepted an honorary Oscar in 2017 as presenter Angelina Jolie looked on. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

How do you feel about that?

I’m sorry; I have to make films the way I feel. I never adapted a famous novel; I rarely work with famous actors. Once I had Catherine Deneuve in a film called Les Créatures. That was my biggest flop! I don’t relate to success. I relate to making films. I received my honorary Oscar [in 2017] with joy and modesty. It was interesting to know that I exist as a film-maker in Hollywood, even though I never made a blockbuster.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

I remember meeting the photographer Brassaï. I was a young photographer. He said, “Take your time, look at things. Look carefully.” I liked the idea that it’s not the act; it’s what you have in mind before you take a picture.

How would you like to be remembered?

I would like to be remembered as a film-maker [who] enjoyed life, including pain. This is such a terrible world, but I keep the idea that every day should be interesting. What happens in my days – working, meeting people, listening – convinces me that it’s worth being alive.


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