Susan Kouguell Speaks with Filmmaker Agnès Varda

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French Director Agnes Varda. Photo by Julien Hekimian/Getty Images

French Director Agnes Varda. Photo by Julien Hekimian/Getty Images

Agnès Varda in Manhattan

Born in Belgium in 1928 with a career spanning over 60 years, Agnès Varda’s work continues to reexamine and challenge the themes of time, memory, and reinventing reality.

Often referred to as the Grandmother of the French New Wave (a term with which she takes issue, noting that Goddard and some of the other Cahier du  Cinema group were close in age yet differed in their political views and artistic backgrounds), Varda’s film credits include La Pointe Courte (1955), Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962),  The Creatures (Les Créatures 1966), Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969), Documenteur (1981), Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985), The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès, 2008).

At the ‘Life as Art’ event in March at the Alliance Français in New York City, moderated by Olivier Renaud-Clément, organizer of her exhibit at Manhattan’s Blum and Poe Gallery, Agnès Varda spoke about the pieces in this show, as well as her narrative and documentary work while film clips and images from past multi-media installations were shown. Varda expressed reverence and curiosity for the subject matter and interviewees, and her responses were as wide-ranging as the work itself.

Varda: “With ‘Uncle Yanco’ (1967), I was interested to transmit not only the facts but how I felt about meeting him, like having the camera shake to show my excitement” — [to ‘The Gleaners and I,’ (2000)] When you film, the weather is always changing; the people are in a certain mood or do a movement you don’t expect. It’s an adventure. You can organize more or less before, and then the adventure is the time that you film, a vérité. And then the editing, I’m very excited about because that’s where you build the story.”

Agnès Varda at Blum & Poe Gallery

Open until April 15th, this is Varda’s first time exhibiting in New York City. Highlighting works made from 1949 to the present, this exhibit includes video installations, photographs, and sculpture. In Paris in 1954, Varda staged her first exhibition of eighteen black & white mounted photographs at her house in which she still lives and works today.

Varda led the press gathering as we walked together throughout the gallery rooms. Irreverent, inspiring, and disarming, Varda often shared her insights with a sense of comedic timing when discussing her work and journey as a filmmaker and artist.

Varda: “I used to put away my life as a photographer and now it comes in the light again.”

Varda points to the framed original invitation she made for the exhibit:

Varda: “The invitation explains the first time I exhibited in my own courtyard. The photographs were hung on the wall, on the shutters, on the ladders and around my studio. I printed the photographs myself and someone helped me to put it on the wood. I left the photographs up even at night because it was my own courtyard. There was no reason to make any kind of announcement so I put the invitation up in my neighborhood; at the bakery, at the butcher, and about 20 shops nearby, which is interesting because years later I made the documentary Daguerréotypes about my neighbors in 1975.”

Following the FIAF screening of Daguerreotypes, moderator Laurence Kardish and Varda discussed the evolution of the film from idea to production.

Varda: “I went to all the shopkeepers and asked if they would come to the café for the show. I was surprised they all came. We took two cameras. I said to the other DP (because you know the show at almost three hours is endless) let’s see what the people do. There is no fiction at all; the magic show happened, and what we filmed in their houses and at the shops were all true. The shopkeepers were concerned about how I was going to pay for the light so I ran a cable from my house and we used my electricity to film. The DP and I were small. We were hiding in corners of the shops. We kept the light on so there was no difference when people came in; we wanted to see them arrive. The crew was one sound person, and one to help, two camera people. We waited for hours to film because we had to be forgotten by the shopkeepers.”

Script EXTRA: A New Landscape – Filmmaking in the Post-Truth Era

As Varda walks around the Blum and Poe gallery, she offers glimpses into her past and present, while recounting some back stories of the images.

Varda: “I am switching from an old filmmaker to a young visual artist. I’ve had three lives: as a photographer, a filmmaker, a visual artist. I’m old. So I’ve been crossing the time for years.”

La cabane du film Le Bonheur

La cabane du film Le Bonheur d’Agnes:  Varda, 2017 Metal structure with Super 8 film from Le Bonheur (1964), miniature potted sunflowers, interior lighting with switch, and mixed media on wooden base. Polished cherry wood case with engraved plaque and handle.

Varda: “We had all these negatives in the film cans.  I wondered if there was a way to recycle all these negatives. So I thought, let’s make it a house of cinema, and make these shacks. Since it’s expensive to do the big ones (life-size), I did these maquettes. For this piece, I re-filmed Le Bonheur in Super 8 because to make the mini house, it had to be true to the original film.” (Varda hands me the magnifying glass to further examine the Super-8 images.) “If you take a look, there are the images of the original film. In Le Bonheur the film starts with a lot of sunflowers, so I imagined a greenhouse where they grow sunflowers.”

bord de mer

Bord de mer (2009). Digital HD projection, Blu-ray aspect 16:9 color/sound video projection, sand. Total running time: 1 minute, looped.96 x 120 x 115 inches

In this piece, Varda explores three representations of time; the one still photograph is of the ocean; the moving image shows a wave rolling in and out of the shoreline; and on the gallery floor lies a small beach of sand at the edge of the video.

I asked Varda about her decision to use real sand on the floor for this installation.

Varda: “I wanted the viewer to forget about the floor and just be there.  I wanted something realistic. I did another big installation Patatutopia and there were potatoes on the floor. Because a little piece of reality helps the imagination.”

La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille

La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille (1956) / Les gens de la terrasse (2008), 2012

A photograph of five figures and a baby on the Le Corbusier’s terrace next to a video re-enactment of what might have preceded the moment the photograph was taken. Varda describes the scene as a before and after. The before (the video) and the after (the photograph).

Varda: “I was sent by a magazine to photograph the Corbusier. I liked the mise en scène. A lot of snapshots for me are questions. Because it was a mystery I decided to make it a screenplay: I asked, who could be those people? So those people became characters. I built the set, and I asked some people to come. (Varda points to the video.) This couple in my mind is the mother and father of the girl, and this one is the mother of the boy. (Varda chuckles) Then like in real families they kiss on both cheeks for hours.”

TRIPTICH

Le Triptyque de Noirmoutier, 2004-2005 35mm film transferred to three-channel color/sound video, three wooden screens, hinges. Total running time: 9 minutes 30 seconds, looped. 39 x 180 x 1 inches open; 29 x 129 x 2 1/2 inches closed.

This interactive work allows the viewer to open and close the side panels thereby influencing the unfolding narrative.

Varda: “I’m asking the viewer for 10 minutes of their time, which is nothing. The feeling comes if you give yourself time to think because there is almost no action.  I love that in a film it brings a lot of people together but a triptych in a gallery or a piece in a gallery brings in a few people. They come, they go. I like the during, the after, the before, and the elsewhere all at the same time. This makes it different from film.

I was inspired by the religious triptychs of the 15th century. I love the triptych shape; the opening and the closing of the panels.  We can see three things at the same time; something we cannot do in a film.  I was very excited to see where the people go when they go out of the scene.”

Script EXTRA: Director Jenny Gage on Documentary ‘All This Panic’

Pointing to the central projection of the domestic kitchen scene Varda says: “For about five minutes it’s just a classical kitchen scene like a Flemish painting of the 17th century.”  (She then points to the left panel and then center panel.) “When the man goes out, the mother puts away things. It’s intimate and also outside; sometimes we feel this at the same time, inside and outside.”

I asked Varda the identities of the three people in the film.

Varda: “They are my neighbors; he is a plumber, and the old lady is his mother. It’s in a little village island of Noirmoutier. I’ve always loved working with non-actors that I meet here and there.

Kouguell: How much direction did you give them?

Varda: I don’t say, ‘Drink your beer like this’ I say, ‘We’re going to do a very intimate kitchen scene’.  We discussed how long the film will be.  I suggested what they did and then they did it according to their own impressions. The kitchen scene is one shot; that was the intention. The relation to the side panels we had to organize.

The lady is the mother of the man, and the woman is his wife. He reads the paper and drinks a beer. Like very often it happens in life. And the women do the work. The lady undoes the rope and the wife does the potatoes.

Varda refers to the images of the beach on the left panel: “My mind started to think, what could happen if I could bring some of the outside inside? Then I allowed myself to have the immensity of the sea.”

Kouguell: This piece happens with no dialogue and just the sound of the ocean; it is very meditative.

Varda: I love the quiet noise of the sea. My mind is always at the sea. I’m inspired by the sea. (Varda points to the action of the woman pushing the cat off the table): “The woman doesn’t like the cat and he doesn’t like the sea.” (Varda smiles) “Voilà, that’s all you can say about their relationship.”

Kouguell:  It speaks volumes about their relationship. And, it’s interesting with the images of the two women, the wife and mother, on the far panels.

Varda: Yes. I kept it blank in the middle for a little while. (We watch together until the panel changes.) And then the film starts again. 

VISAGES, VILLAGES

Varda: “The artist JR and I just finished the documentary Visages/Villages; it will open in June in France. We got along very well; we have a 55-year age difference. We met people in the villages, listened to them. I took pictures of them, and JR enlarged them.

Documentary feeds my mind, it feeds my soul. Filming is also learning to live with other people, learning to share something with people you may not have met before. And so it is for me especially over the last years I like taking the time to listen to people. The film asks: How do you perceive what’s happening to us and what’s happening to the people we meet?”

Script EXTRA: Legally Speaking, It Depends – Women Issues

Final Words

Varda: “I fought a lot as a feminist, and we succeeded with a lot of marching and screaming and we changed the law. Birth control was an incredible step in society. I’m still a feminist more than ever. In the cinema world in France today, there are a lot of women directors, writers, DPs, mixers, producers. It’s a fight I did when I started making films. I say to women, learn the camera, learn the sound and editing. When I was young it was rare to have a camera. Now people do photos all the time. When they do selfies, they want to put themselves in it to say they were there. As if to say, I need proof in my life. Not only are images easier to make now, but we want to have memories of ourselves.

The documentary I did about widows (The Widows of Noirmoutier The Veuves de Noirmoutier 2005) I went alone with a small camera and sound. The women were very touching the way they spoke to me with their small confidences. I listened to them. It’s a step in understanding the world.  The world is cruel.  But I have decided, especially aging, to try and spend good time with people. I cannot change a life. I have seen the world changing so much since I have been here.

You can use your memory to remember, but that’s not my point in my work now.  The point is, getting a piece of my past and bringing it in my life of today. I don’t have the feeling that I wish to tell you my memories, (she smiles) but I did it a little in The Beaches of Agnes. What I do now is make it alive now. What I want is to make the now and here very important.  It’s sharing what I do with people. My work is to propose emotion, propose surprises, and propose my view.  That’s the life of the artist.”

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