The last time we talked to Agnès Varda, it was 2018, just after she’d received her honorary lifetime achievement Oscar – the first female director to win one. She was very proud of how she’d picked up her award dressed in her favourite pyjamas…
I know. She was in love with those pyjamas! She got them from a pretty cheap high street brand in France. But it totally suited her, and no one noticed. Later, she got herself a more luxury set – Gucci ones!
Gucci doesn’t sound so Varda-like…
(Laughs) It happened because she’d made Faces Places with [mural artist] J.R., who was already working with Gucci. They then told Agnès she could pick some items from their collection, and at first she was like, “Me? No way!” It wasn’t her thing at all! But then she did find a pyjama set she really liked – silk, with a beautiful red and pink flower pattern. She later wore them on the red carpet, and she looked great! Very much like herself, and yet so fashionable! She was very loyal to small things, like her haircut.
That signature bowl haircut was legendary. The story goes that she was 19, put a bowl on her head and said, “Cut around it!” It speaks to her approach to fashion and convention… a little punk.
It was one of those moments in life, like being in a love affair.
Yes (laughs), but it was totally who she was! Always doing her own thing. I remember going with her through small villages in the depths of rural France. People would see that tiny old lady with colourful clothes and funny hair trotting up to them to ask them weird questions and they were intrigued! Usually she’d send me to run ahead and talk to them – she was older and slower, so it was my job to do that. I’d come up to this guy in front of his repair shop who’d say: “No, sorry, it’s the end of my day, I want to go home.” But then she’d catch up with us, and he’d immediately start talking to her! She was so curious about people. It was genuine interest, and they’d feel it. She’d also adapt to everyone and every situation. She loved le hasard, chance, and had this amazing ability to bring everybody inside her story. Magic did happen with her!
Let’s talk about your friendship with Varda. It started in 2007 when you came to visit in her Rue Daguerre home. You were a young artist who’d just finished her PhD in art; she was this 79-year-old revered icon. How did it all happen?
I’d first asked her if she’d agree to be on the jury for my PhD thesis and she declined, saying it wasn’t her thing and she was way too busy, but also that I should come and visit her once I was done. So I did just that. I reached out, and one day she invited me for a chat. At some point she asked: Do you want to work with me? I was sitting, fortunately – it was just so overwhelming and so unexpected! And then she said, “Okay, when can you start? Tomorrow? I have a new camera. Can you figure out how it works? I want to go with you and shoot a field of poppy flowers.” The next day was Sunday, but I was there, of course.
So she recruited you on the spot for what would be an immersive, all-encompassing collaboration. No work/life balance with Agnès, right? It was all blended…
Yes, from that day until the end, we spent most of our time together. If we weren’t working on a project, we’d be spending time together… eating fondant au chocolat, our favourite dessert! (Laughs) In a way, it was very easy for me because we had so much in common. We didn’t just love the same food; we both loved Glenn Gould’s Bach, and [writer] Nathalie Saraute. It was a deep connection on many levels. I ended up spending a huge part of those 13 years at her home in Rue Daguerre – I actually moved flats to another one closer to her, only one block away. Spending all my time with her was much better than anything else I could have done. It was difficult to explain, and not easy for my family. But it was one of those moments in life, like being in a love affair.
How was a day with Agnès?
I’ve got to find a man who’s able to walk backwards with an erection in Agnès’s courtyard in the middle of winter
Amazing! Amazingly full – and fulfilling! She was very demanding, from herself and from everyone around her. Once she had an idea, it meant searching until you found the most adequate way to express it, down to the finest details. It was pretty much a constant work in progress, one thing leading to the next… Sometimes it’d be too much, but you’d just go for it, because it was just so rich and so fulfilling that you ended up preferring to rush along with her than stay on the sidelines.
One of the biggest misunderstandings about Agnès is to see her as an intellectual artist. Although very erudite, she wasn’t an intellectual! She was moving along with her gut and intuition, always driven by insatiable curiosity. This could mean waking up at 6am to get the best light and work- ing until dawn to catch the best light again. She worked very hard until the very end, with that same amazing energy.
She’d involve everyone around her, down to your friends and sister, right?
Agnès was very clear about the fact that there was so much she wanted to achieve that she needed help. And it would always go so fast that I had to find people we could trust and who would jump in at short notice. My sister is a composer and when we needed music for The Beaches of Agnès and Agnès Varda: from Here to There, the series, I asked her… I remember how Agnès recruited my father, pretty much on the spot. He’d come to see a new exhibition in the south of France, and it wasn’t that well set up yet, so she said, “Jean, can you please fix the sand here?” After that, she’d always say my father was her “gardener”. That was how she dealt with people and life.
Do you have an example of how Agnès would go from birthing an idea to materialising it?
A funny one is when we worked on Beaches. At some point, she wanted to show the beautiful desire between a man and a woman in order to express her relationship with Jacques Demy. And as we’re brainstorming, she says: “I know, let’s use that Magritte painting (‘The Lovers’), so it’ll be two people kissing with their faces wrapped in fabric. We’ll shoot it in my courtyard.” So I was like, “Oh great, sure.” Then she goes on… “But we need to be clear: they’ll be naked, walking backwards, and the man will have to have an erection. Because it’s about desire, isn’t it?” So the next thing I know is that I’ve got to find a man who’s able to walk backwards with an erection in Agnès’s courtyard in the middle of winter, his face wrapped in fabric. In the end we got a professional porn actor to play that beautiful poetic scene (laughs).
When asked about her future by a French radio journalist, she said, “At my age I don’t have a future, I have many projects and not much time, so I need to go fast…”
She was very pragmatic (smiles). But this emergency of life was always her. It only got more intense as she grew older. When you realise you don’t have much time ahead, you don’t want to waste it. This is also related to her moving away from cinema, which is an industry. It always took so much energy and time to raise the money for a film, to make money with a film. Visual and video art gave her the freedom she need- ed; it was liberating. She could share all the things she wanted to share, the pressure of money was not on her anymore… She could be free and focus on her art.
It’s commonly thought that Varda became a visual artist when she was offered an exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2003. How did you witness the transition from what she called her second to third life? Was there an obvious turning point?
For Agnès, it always starts with a simple idea she draws from life – it could be a potato, a movement or her feeling for a frame. As a photographer, she had this sharp sense of framing which she brought into her cinema, and this idea of what’s inside and what’s outside the frame was still there in her ‘third life’ as an artist. You see a good illustration of it in the installation she imagined for the Liverpool Biennial, ‘3 moving images. 3 rhythms. 3 sounds’, which we brought to Silent Green. One of the loops shows the ‘dance of the camera cap’ – basically, she forgot to turn off the camera and you can see the cap dangling into the frame. She discovered the footage and instead of putting it into the garbage, she decided to keep it and highlight the movement with a jazz soundtrack, creating a very poetic moment.
From camera mishaps to misshapen food, Varda was the ultimate upcycler before the concept became a thing. Like with the potatoes she’d rescue, groom and photograph. The 11-portrait series “Heart Shaped Potato” displays Varda’s loving gaze for each one of her lady spuds…
The very old, sprouted ones were her favourites. They are beautiful to look at, real portrait subjects! It all started with The Gleaners and I, when she saw that man picking discarded produce at her neighbourhood’s farmer’s market, and she started talking to him… and this would turn into a much bigger story about our society and waste. That’s how it often starts. From a small ordinary thing she frames with her mind, singles out and turns into something bigger and beautiful.
Somehow she became a hero of food waste awareness without really meaning to be political about it. You said earlier that it would be a mistake to think of Varda as an intellectual artist. Do you think people have been over-intellectualising her work? She’s known in the Anglosphere as a feminist icon, yet she never consciously sought to be a feminist filmmaker, did she?
It’s the same problem with the way she’s been labelled as a Nouvelle Vague director. She was always ahead of her time. With a film like La pointe Courte , she pioneered the idea of cinema with more freedom, shot outdoors using daylight with a small crew on a low budget, etc., three years or so before those men of the Nouvelle Vague had even made a film. I think it’s a distorted, simplified retrospective take on who she was and what she did. It’s the same with feminism. She was a woman who did her job, who made films, without thinking of herself as a woman doing cinema.
But she did become an inspiration for many female filmmakers. Cléo from 5 to 7 two hours in the life of a woman, without the male gaze, back in 1962 – is seen as a pioneering feminist film…
Agnès loved cemeteries and was also very much into Mexican death culture
Yes, a film like Cléo was totally new at the time: a woman shown from a totally different perspective, and shown confronting death, which isn’t such a glamorous topic. That’s what interested her at the time she filmed it, not that it would become part of feminist film history. Similarly, when she made a film about Mona’s life [Vagabond, 1982], she brought attention to those women with no home or rules, misfits who were totally free and paid the price for it, 15 years before anyone had noticed those women existed. She’d always joke about how strange it was that this ended up being her biggest success, “a film about an unlikable girl who gives the finger to people who want to help her!” But she’s free. And Agnès was as free as Mona, in a way.
In Varda’s case, it got a lot less tragic. Her fame actually caught up with her. How did she relate to the Academy Award, the tributes, the media attention?
It was nice for her! She didn’t care so much about awards and prizes, but she liked to feel that she was relating to people and that people were relating to her. She loved meeting audiences and taking part in talks. For her, it almost felt like a natural development. Always being on the fringe and doing your own thing isn’t easy, and she often struggled. But she was honest with her work, and true to herself, and her integrity paid off.
The Berlin exhibition pays tribute to Varda’s early career as a photojournalist, including a series of 24 photographs she took while on an assignment in a small Bavarian town. And you realise it’s all there already…
Yes, I really love those pictures. In 1960 she was sent to Dinkelbühl in Bavaria on a photo assignment for a magazine called Réalités. I remember seeing those photos in her archive somewhere – it contains mountains of material, but I found them and selected 24 images she shot on the side. You’re right, Agnès is all there already, from her keen eye for framing to her joyful curiosity about people: old people, young people, factory workers… Her relationship with life: what does it mean to look through a window or through a child’s eye? In many ways, she was a visual artist from the beginning, and continued to be a photographer all along.
Among her favourite subjects were cats. Her beloved feline Zgougou got her own “Katzoleum” – a poetic video animation housed in a simple wooden shack, complete with music by Steve Reich. How did this come about?
It started with Zgougou’s grave on the island of Noirmoutier, where she lived with Jacques Demy. She first did an animation with colourful flowers and shells, then she decided she wanted to film the grave from above as a meditation on what it means, this small grave seen from “outer space”. It was difficult because we didn’t have the technology – no drones yet! So she had to find a crane. The Cartier Foundation bought the video installation and she imagined a shack to house it in their garden – which opened a new path in her artistic life, with many shacks to come. The installation is such a beautiful, fun piece. Kids love it. The shells with flowers growing from the grave, and then the feeling you’re leaving Earth and travelling into space as the camera zooms out and out… In a way it’s a vanitas, but not sad at all.
When I got to know about Silent Green, I immediately thought we should recreate Zgougou’s shack here. She’d have loved this place! Agnès loved cemeteries and was also very much into Mexican death culture, this art of bringing joy and colour into celebrating the dead. She’d touch on very serious topics like death without gravity, using her joyful touch instead.
Did she ever talk about her own death?
She never spoke about her own death. No, she was so much more interested in life. For her, it was all about life…
This is the first exhibition of this scale since her death. How did it feel curating it without her? How much of it is by you, and how much from her?
It’s totally her! For 13 years, I was shadowing her, trying to be inside her head, making things happen the way she saw or wanted them. So I’m still pretty much seeing it that way – doing it the way she’d have wanted it to be. Which can be an issue, as it’s sometimes difficult for me to accept ways that I feel would have been too remote from who she was.
Now that she’s not here anymore, do you feel a need to move on to your own perspective?
I do think this project could also be a transition for me. She’ll always be part of my life, but what does it mean to keep the Varda spirit now that she’s gone? One important thing between us was that I always stayed independent – the company, Cine Tamaris, is run by her children, particularly her daughter Rosalie. Although Agnès didn’t say anything about it, I’m sure she’d much rather see me flying my own skies.
What do you think will remain from all those years you spent with her?
So many things! Her amazing curiosity. Her ability to marvel at tiny ordinary things, a flower, a word… She was such a joyful person to be with, she was in love with life! I used to think of myself as a very positive person, but when I met her, I realised what a small player I was (laughs).
- The Third Life of Agnès Varda Silent Green, Wedding. Through Jul 20.
BIO: Julia Fabry was born near the French south-eastern city of Saint-Étienne and graduated in Cinema and Visual Art. She is a photographer, video artist and artistic director. She met Varda in 2007, the beginning of a quasi-fusional 13-year-long relationship, as fixer, creative assistant, personal curator, friend. The Silent Green exhibition is the largest she’s curated since Varda’s death.