The Beaches of Agnes

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 October 2009

Venues: Barbican, Cine Lumiere, Curzon Renoir (London) + key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Agnès Varda

Writer: Agnès Varda

Original title: Les Plages d’Agnès

France 2008

110 mins

Renowned veteran director of the nouvelle vague Agnès Varda returns to UK screens this month with The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès). Part autobiography, part documentary, part cinematic essay, Varda’s latest film is a lyrical, free-flowing recollection of her life in and around the cinema.

Varda studied art history and photography in Paris before making her first feature, La Pointe-Courte, in 1954. Thanks to her friendship with Jean-Luc Godard, Varda went on to make the dazzling Cléo de 5 à 7, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1962. Between 1962 and 1990, Varda was married to fellow director and master of ‘the film in song’ Jacques Demy. Side by side, they made films in both France and Hollywood over the years. More recently, Varda has returned to her visual art roots, and created installation exhibitions for such institutions as the Cartier Foundation and Venice Biennale.

Slightly unsure of what to expect from a ‘short, plump old lady’ with such a glittering past, I meet Agnès in a small office in Holborn, London, to discuss her latest film. She speaks with English clearly learnt in America, and wears a curious mixture of tasteful, floaty clothes and a two-tone ‘punk’ haircut. I find her to be at once amiable and venerable.

David Warwick: Where did the inspiration for The Beaches of Agnès come from?

Agnès Varda:I wanted to make a point because I was turning 80. I thought I should do something. You always remember passing by a zero, and when I was younger I could never imagine being 80.

DW: You didn’t like the idea?

AV: Not at all! I can remember thinking that people who were 40 were very old, and people who were 50 – they were out! I remember vividly being disinterested in these people and thinking, ‘I hope I don’t live beyond 45’. I thought it was poetic to die young.

DW: In the film you say that imagining yourself as ancient is funny.

AV: Haha, yes. Do you know that my grandchildren call me ‘Mamita Punk’? It’s like the name of a stripper! I love it. I’m glad I’m still in the mood for enjoying jokes and punk behaviour… Most of the papers like to quote the first sentence of the film, ‘I’m a short, plump, old lady’, but the second part of the sentence is more important – that it’s the others that I like, the others that interest me, that intrigue me passionately. That’s the statement of the film. It appears at the end of the film when they give me all those brooms for my birthday, and I sit here and I think, what are all these brooms. And I say, ‘it happened yesterday; it’s already gone, it’s already in the film’, and then, ‘je me rappelle pourquoi je vis’ – ‘I remember why I’m living’. Making this film is a way of living on, living and remembering.

DW: How did you go about making The Beaches? How much was scripted, and how much emerged from your talents as a gleaner?

AV: A lot was scripted and planned. When we build a set, when I decide I want to show my courtyard as it was, we have to be organised. When we have the boat on the river Seine, and the whale on the beach, we have to be organised. It’s set up and constructed. But I remember to let myself be disturbed, like when I go to my childhood house: I visit the garden, and I remember my sister, and then I meet the man who lives there and his wife. They are collectors of little trains, and since I have the soul of a documentarist I can’t stop myself. I question them, I make them speak about how they found them, how much they cost, the value of the collection – and I’m gone! So I stage a lot of things, it’s organised, but open to things happening.

DW: What about the narration?

AV: I wrote most of the narration before shooting, so that I knew where I was going. But sometimes during the shooting, I have an idea and I say it to the camera. A lot of the narration was finished later or changed – because it has to fit, and also be sometimes contradictory. I like to play off words, which becomes a play of images.

DW:I imagine it was a difficult film to edit?

AV: Yes, the editing was long – nine months – but I had to figure out how to make it free… I think it is free, and that’s what makes me feel good. Like the scene with the naked couple in the courtyard. It is interesting that you have this in the middle of the film, and then you go to something else… By the way, I heard that because of this scene the film is banned – because the man has a hard-on. Earlier in the film, we use a fake hard-on, but this is a real one, and because of that it’s banned… I should have used a real one both times, but at the time I didn’t think of it, and then it was too late.

DW: You praise new digital techniques in The Beaches.

AV: I praise it? … I use it.

DW: You seem impressed by it though. Grateful for it.

AV: Yes. I could have shot it in 35mm and had a second camera, but I knew that I wanted lots of little editing tricks; and if I had done it in 35mm it would have been hard. When you do any kind of tricks in 35mm, you have to go backwards and forwards between film and digital. Also, sometimes, when something was missing from the film, I’d take my camera, I’d go in the street or in my courtyard, I’d film something, bring it back in, and five minutes later I’d put it in the film. So for a film so complicated, that relies so much on collage, I think we had a good tool.

DW: The form of The Beaches is very interesting. You mix lots of different material and styles.

AV: Yes. The technique is collage, and many artists have done that – painters like Rauschenberg for example. It’s a way of disturbing the paper. Collage can just be a puzzle in which you have to figure out the real figure or the real landscape, but you can also make a collage that doesn’t end as a recognisable figure. You can make a collage that is just a collage.

DW: And you’d define The Beaches as a collage that is just a collage?

AV: No. It’s hard to define. I see it as an Unidentified Flying Object, because it doesn’t belong to documentary really, even though I speak about real people, and it’s not a fiction film because it’s my life. And it’s not action, it’s not totally fantastical, it’s not a thriller. It’s a film that comes out of me. As a cinematic object, that’s the way I see it.

DW: It’s quite a history lesson too, full of radical people and radical ideals.

AV: It’s mostly about showing many people. Alexander Calder on the beach, dancing like a bear, images I have of Fidel Castro, pictures I took in China. It’s about part of my life but mixed with a big period of history, the second half of the 20th century. Even though I never belonged to a political party, never signed anything, I have been with it, and I try to understand it.

DW: You explain in the film how you were an angry feminist in the 70s. Is the fight for feminism still important to you now?

AV: Yes, it’s still important. I mean, read the paper. The fight is just beginning in many parts of the world. In France, in England, in some educated countries, it has changed, not totally, but at least the thing about birth control is coming to be understood and used. But in many countries it is not… The freedom of women though, it’s exciting. And more and more women make films. We have some very good directors. Claire Denis for example: her work deals with something fantastic coming out of life, and it’s so strong, so powerful. Have you seen the one with all the blood?

DW: Trouble Everyday?

AV: Yes. It’s incredible; very powerful. She’s very powerful.

DW: What about her latest film, 35 Rhums?

AV: Yes. That one’s strange; difficult to understand, but interesting. She’s always interested in people, black people.

DW: In The Beaches you recall how, when you were just starting out, you thought that you could make a film by just putting words and images together.

AV: Yes, I was ridiculous at that time. It’s obviously not just that at all. It is movement, it is editing, it is music. It is creating a world, a mixed world, like in The Beaches, in the first sequence on the beach with the mirrors. The big thing in this scene is the wind. My scarf goes like this, and it pushes me like that. The wind makes the scene feel much more alive.

DW: The Beaches reminded me a little bit of Godard’s Histoires du cinéma, in as far as both films use this technique of collage, and both pursue this old question of ‘what is cinema’.

AV: Yes, I think it deals with this question, ‘what is cinema?’ through how I found specific cinematic ways of telling what I was telling. I could have told you the same things that are in the film by just talking to you for six hours. But instead I found shapes. Like in the scene when I wanted to show the five men their fathers, whom they’d never met. I made a sort of exhibition with a 16mm projector and a screen, and they have to push the images of their fathers into the night. I could have just shown them a picture, but I found something that people will share and feel. It’s a ritual and a burial. I found things like this in many places in the film. I made a fool of myself, and I made a fake car in which I tried to park. It’s interesting to do that at 80, and I enjoy doing it and showing it to people and to my grandchildren.

DW: Will you ever stop making films?

AV: Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese director, is 100 and he’s still making films. I hope I don’t get very old though. Very old age is terrible, apart from in a few cases. I will continue to do installations until the end, and they include films. You have the space, you have to build, you have to invent. But fiction films, I don’t think I’ll do any more of those. The Beaches of Agnès is already a hybrid.

Interview by David Warwick