On the eve of her 80th birthday, filmmaker Agnès Varda, frequently referred to as “the godmother of the French New Wave,” made the autobiographical The Beaches of Agnès. Guiding us through her extraordinary 55-year career, Varda poignantly reminisces about Jacques Demy, her husband, who died, we learn for the first time, of AIDS in 1990. I met with the lively Varda at Film Forum in March to look back.
How did you decide the best way to structure a film about your life?
I could have made a film that’s six hours, like everybody could. My point was to keep [in] what I could share with other people. I’m a film-maker, so I wanted to do something that obliged people to know my films, to be interested in my filmmaker’s life.
When I interviewed you four years ago for Cinévardaphoto, you told me, “You have to film according to a vibration, not a screenplay.” Was it a similar process for making this film?
Totally true. Because how could I choose? How could I do it if not feeling the inspiration, the free association? I ended up understanding that I really had to take time, and the editing took me nine months. The most freedom was when I realized, “If I don’t have enough, I’ll stop editing and go back to shooting.” I think this film, which I call a UFO, is in between fiction and documentary.
You say in the film that you don’t feel a strong link to your childhood, yet you married someone—Jacques Demy—who felt a strong link with his. Did Jacques have any influence on the way you thought about your youth?
It’s not that something bad happened to me, but nothing special in my youth has ever inspired me to make a movie. If people love the film, it will be because it’s a promenade through my life.
Why did you decide to talk about Jacques’s death now?
Because, at the time, he really made it clear that he didn’t want anyone to speak about it. And nobody ever said anything. People had so much respect for Jacques. But his wish [now] doesn’t have the same meaning [it had then]. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988; it was a specific death sentence at the time. It’s just an experience that I had to share because it has been very important. It’s not that I decided—the real telling comes naturally in the story.
Your film mentions periods when you and Jacques were not together.
And then we came back. We had a hole in our love story. This was in California; I show it with [the clips from 1981’s] Documenteur; Sabine Mamou is more or less playing me.
You say in the The Beaches of Agnès that Documenteur [about a recently separated woman living in L.A. with her young son, played by Agnès and Jacques’s own kid, Mathieu Demy] is your favorite film; it’s my favorite of yours, too.
People always see me as active and strong. I said I owe it to myself to make a sad film.
I wish Documenteur could be re-released.
I’ll try to make a DVD, but there’s no hope to show it again. Unless I become a little bit more famous. I’m known, but I’m not famous.
Would you like to be more famous?
No. I would like my films to be shown more.
The Beaches of Agnès opens July 1 at Film Forum