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Interview with Agnès Varda, AFI Festival

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

By Gary M. Kramer.

Agnès Varda was the guest artistic director at the AFI Festival this year. She screened two of her films—Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Documenteur (1981)—as well as programmed four other titles: Pickpocket (Bresson, 1959); A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, 1974); The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder, 1979) and After Hours, (Scorsese, 1985). During a press conference at the fest, Varda sat down to talk about the festival, the films she curated, and her own work.

What can you say about being the guest artistic director at AFI Fest this year?

I came here for many reasons. One is that I’ve been invited by LACMA museum to do an installation, related to the fact that LACMA’s film foundation restored the film I made in 1969, Lion’s Love. That film captured the idols of the time, Viva, James Rado and Gerome Ragni from Hair, and Shirley Clarke—all these people in a rented house. I made a film about the collage of those incredible years of peace and love and war and demonstration and Black Panthers. But these prints have faded. So what I did, at the same time they did the restoration—I like to recycle, you know, from The Gleaners and I—I took an old print of Lion’s Love and I made a shack. Nowadays, we show DCP everywhere. What happened to all the prints? Every film has 9 or 10 prints. So. I built a house, which is made of film. It’s a sculpture and it’s a house. It was so exciting when they invited me to make an [installation]. It was the time of the AFI Festival, so they asked me why don’t you program films other than yours. So I introduced Pickpocket, and Marriage of Maria Braun… It’s exciting that it’s all come together.

What were your criteria for the films you selected for the festival?

I didn’t see films until twenty years ago. When I made my first film La Pointe Courte (1955), I didn’t know about film. So I discovered them. And I thought if I’d seen these masterpieces, I wouldn’t have dared to start, because I made a very radical film—a very daring film. But because I became a filmmaker, I started to see a lot of films: Sunrise (1927) by Murnau, and Japanese films, German films. Italian—I was so much in love with Fellini. I met him and he called me Agnezina. He was full of love. They gave me four [films to program]. If they gave me ten, I could have done ten. I chose The Marriage of Maria Braun because it’s an incredible Fassbinder. He made 32 films in 18 years.

Pickpocket (1959)

Pickpocket (1959)

What appealed to you about the films you selected?

A film is always a collage—it’s a subject, a style, what I call “cine-writing.” Because you don’t write the script, you write the film. All the choices—color or black and white, the shot, the timing, whatever you chose, you write the film. Mostly, the editing—it can change the film. When I like a film—most of the time, I like auteur films—the director is also involved in the screenplay and the editing. Like Pickpocket, it has an incredible style. When they open the door, and close the door, the camera stays on the door. The action is not slow; it’s the editing. [The thievery], it’s very erotic, it shows the perversion of the subject. But it’s really a story of souls, and guilt and punishment.

Editing in Women Under the Influence is much different. The shots go on much longer…

The sequence when they have the dinner: it’s a masterpiece. The way it changed the mood slowly—the woman wants to be nice, but she goes over the boarder. It’s a good feeling she wants to be nice to her man’s friends, and his companions, and she becomes exaggerated, and he gets mad at her. It’s so strange. Gena Rowlands is so incredible. There is so much humanity, so much love. The love is there. She can’t communicate. She’s closed, she’s vaguely out of her mind.

Then there is the comedy of After Hours. Which plays on humor.

And also the subject—“Let’s go home!” The $20 bill that goes out the window, how the driver is mean… It’s interesting, because what I don’t like in After Hours is that the women are crazy. Most of them are hysterical. I’m not happy about these characters, but they exist…

Rowland’s character in A Woman Under the Influence is hysterical, albeit in a different way….

She’s weak. She’s weak. Maria Braun [the character] is weak, but she’s strong. She’s a bitch in a way. She really represents Germany after the war. It’s an allegory. So she’s very human. I love the scene with the American soldier.

I’m going to see Documenteur. I’ve seen Americano… [Varda’s son, Mathieu Demy’s “sequel” to Varda’s film, which starred the young Demy].

I loved it. Poor Mathieu. I think he made a good film, but it didn’t catch on. It’s always troubling when a film fails. He asked me to read the screenplay. I read, “The mother is dead,” and I said, “Good start.” [Laughs]. There is something about reality and imagination. It’s a very strange film.

Speaking of reality and imagination, you are showing Cleo from 5 to 7. You started that film in color with the tarot cards…

Cleo was a real story. The Tarot reader is kind of fake. She invents life. So I used the color as an imaginary life that is in the cards, it’s a twist. When she asks, “Are you sick?” and Cleo says, “Yes,” it goes into black and white. You go into the reality of the fear of being sick and dying, a fear that is natural. The film is more about that than the beauty of death; we don’t want beauty to die. We don’t want anyone to die. I remember painting a beautiful naked woman embraced by skeletons—the contradiction of beauty and the threat of death. Then I worked on the real time. It’s a film where I investigated a lot of things. It’s 50 years old. Can you believe it?!

Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.

1 Comment for “Interview with Agnès Varda, AFI Festival”

  1. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Always good to read a sharp and incisive interview with Varda, one of the greatly under-appreciated talents of world cinema, and the initial driving force of the Nouvelle Vague, though people seem to forget that now, and concentrate solely on Godard and Truffaut. And to think that she’s still working! Absolutely inspirational!
    Thanks, Gary, for a great piece.

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