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Agnes Varda - The Grandmother of the New Wave
As Interviewed by Carol Allen
Agnes talking as I turn tape machine on: We know that now we get used to the TV set which is so small or the video cassette which most of the time are made with disgusting material and that was the case by the way for Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the video cassettes were pale beige pinkish and had nothing to do with the film as it set out to be.
Now as for my six films here some are very old including one tonight, my first film, made in '54 which made me, that's how I became the grandmother of the New Wave, everybody knows, this is more than 50 years, its' interesting, no more than 40 years, my first feature and for years it was never subtitled in English because it's more a cinematic piece I would say than a film for general release, it's slightly straight a little huff and daring for that time so now it has been subtitled by the ministry of foreign affair bureau de cinema, they send it with while some were known like Cleo from 5-7 that you may know or Sans Toit ni Loi called Vagobonde here I think and Jacquot de Nates and there is One Sings the Other Doesn't and there is a film I made in the States.
One of the last films I made, well three years ago, was about the shooting of the Young Girls of Rochefort by Jacques Demy, it's called Young Girls Turned 25, that's the one I introduced Monday, so it is through that - I guess if Jacques was alive I would not have done these films about him, his work. Things happen the way they have to happen I guess and I made a documentary about him, all his films called L'Univers de Jacques Demy - The World of Jacques Demy and meanwhile I was restoring stuff of his and some of my films, so that's how we come to write it.
Can I just ask you - I want to ask you about Umbrellas particularly because this is going to be carried when the film opens in London, but Jacquot de Nantes, I thought was a documentary, because I'm afraid I never saw it, and I was passing the French Institute just now and it says "starring" so was it a fictionalised?
It's a fiction, it's the story of - I would like you to see it - it's the story of a boy between 8 years old and 18 years old in the time of the war in France in the 40's in a garage in Nantes and he's so excited about making shows, he does puppets and then he start alone to start cinema and in his attic he fights like a tiger to do a little piece of film so that he would convince his mother to be able to go to a cinema school in Paris. Obviously this is the real story of Jacques Demy but it's a fiction as if you would say I shot Andy Warhol is not a documentary that's a fiction. So you can have different levels of fiction. This one is strongly related to real Jacques and he appears in the film in a way to say, yes this is true, this is my story and it has like also little pieces of his future film but it's a (cha???). It was cast with three children growing up because it couldn't be the same doing 8 and 18 and a fake mother and a fake father. It's a fiction film but largely it is dealing direct with
Jacques' memories that he allowed me to use and I wrote the dialogue, I wrote the scenes. Maybe I push or I was beyond or after what he would have done himself but he gave the right to make a fiction, but I know I tried as much as I could to be like - I was like digging in my own memory as if I were him so I made a very biziarre mediumique approach to what I had in mind even though he was alive when I did it, he was coming on the shooting, he did see most of it.
L'Univers de Jacques Demy and the film about The Young Girls of Rochefort 25 years On, they are documentaries though are they?
Absolutely. My project was very clearly when I started Jacquot de Nantes to make a fiction about a boy who wants to become a filmmaker and then to make a documentary about the adult who made these films, but Jacques passed away just at the end of Jacquot de Nantes so I had to make the documentary with pieces I found in diverse - an interview he gave you know made by television and I had interviews with everybody - Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, actors and actresses who'd worked with him and Anouk Aimee, everybody, Piccoli, so these people spoke about him intercut with pieces of himself. The real typical documentary about a filmmaker. So for me it's like a diptych - he's a child, it's a fiction, he dreams about making movies, he's adult, it's a documentary, he has made movies, so that was the project.
Now the one about Young Girls of Rochefort came in between - it twist a little my first idea but you have to follow what's happening, you cannot make a clarification like they do in the industry (?!?), some of us are artists still.
How long were you married, Agnes?
32 years, no we didn't marry right away. We were together 32 years, we were married 28 and fighting and loving, like passion.
Over 30 years is a long time to know somebody and live with somebody. When you were making these films your husband, were there any surprises. Did you find out things about him that you didn't know?
Yes, when he wrote himself his childhood memories, even though he had told about it, he said by writing, it's like a pump you know, by writing other names other stories came out. But this I got from himself on the paper. That I discover myself, like I did with Truffaut and all that. No, no. Well I did look for discoveries I'd say but no because that was not my point. My point was to make a film about the filmmaker so the documentary, everybody tells something. Sometimes the interview, the person surprised me by saying something like, you are so maniac about the world but I knew it, I wasn't surprised.
You knew he could be manic?
Well he was manic about his own lines. Jeanne Moreau says, "I couldn't change a comma, I had to say the exact speed he wanted", and other people say things like this but....I think it's fair just to show the work, the evolution of the work from the first documentary he made, when he didn't want so much to make documentaries but he start like this, then going to his own world of idealising - do you read from French? Because the thing about Umbrellas of Cherbourg that I restore and I can explain that - I don't like to - you can imagine, I can do the work but I cannot speak for Jacques, I would hate that and I think it's - that's it, I'm a film maker, I can speak about my own films, I can speak about the films, the documentaries I made about his but it's my cinema, I'm still speaking about my work.
About his work especially Umbrellas of Cherbourg, at time it came out
in Paris Cine Tamaris did a little Cekadidemy - it's phonetic, it means
what Jacques Demy said but it's like a joke of children when they learn
to speak. And this is what he said himself about the film - you may have
somebody in your paper who could translate some of it. (She then translates
part of Cekadidemy.) He said: I'd rather idealise the real, if not
why go to the movies? And he said: Les parapluis is a film
against war, against absence, against whatever we hate which breaks happiness.
He said (the interviewer) you've given Catherine Deneuve the face
of innocence and youth and Jacques replied: Catherine is innocence
and youth. What would you have done if you had not done cinema,
and he says, I would have been a painter or musician. I don't
think they are contradictory. What did you do before making cinema?
He explained how it started and he said very nice word, he said, I would say it's a film "en chante?" like we say "en couleurs", but it doesn't translate very well...
En-chante is enchanting and it's also sang...
Like you say "en Couleurs", in colour. so in singing and in colours. But it makes a joke with worlds in French. (Reading through article.) Now he says like he worked with Michel Legrand and he says how he found Cherbourg in case somebody reads French and this is when he came to Cannes. He's asked: What kind of pleasure did you get by making Parapluies? Answer: An extreme pleasure, refined. Not bestial at all! Question: Your wife Agnes Varda is famous. She has been selected at Cannes - cos I had been with Chloe before. In her talent what touches you? Answer: Poetry. It's bizarre. Question: Who would you most like to meet at the festival? Answer: The little sisters Dorleac, that is Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac. With whom he later worked. He was already wishing to do it.
Could I ask you about this restoration of Les Parapluies?
I will tell you. Les Parapluies is made along the moves of the heart, sur long les mouvements du coeur. It's the little pieces of an existence a life which memory is the music. It's very interesting the way they use the music. You have to listen to that music with your ear to what dream but you have to look at the film with your eye stuck on the glass of reality. It's very interesting because he really pushes it.
And this is a page of his handwriting. The way the script was written before was totally like a normal script (Sing/reads a few lines) - it's now written like an opera, under the music. It's really a script. If that is any use, please have it. I have made you a copy. About the restoration, I would like to do it. If Robert Ryder gave you the pages I wrote in English about how it was restored.
I have some information.
What did you understand? It's complicated and if you know, I don't want to go over the whole thing.
As I understand it, it was something you and your husband wanted to do for a long time.
He wanted to do it but the producer was not ready to because it costs a big amount of money. It cost like you know £80,000, that kind of money, so she was not ready to do it because she thought it was not worth it. But she still had done something very important, that Jacques asked her to pay at the time, 1964. The film was shot with a colour negative and he knew that colours are fading, so he did ask her to report the negative on two positive prints, black and white.
Two not three?
Three. One positive print just getting the reds, one just getting the blues, one getting the greens.This is not a technicolor process but it's the same kind of process. It's like when you print in paper you have three layers printing - the machine goes for red, the machine goes for yellow - you know. So because he saved in black and white the value of the colours, but the producer didn't want to afford it. When the producer realise Jacques is right and he got back and made an arrangement with her to get the material back in the family, then we did the restoration.
Where have these prints gone in the time between. Were they easy to find?
They were thank God - French cinema has national archive and Jacques had insisted they would be kept there. So while there was a lot of paper to organise. Jacques wanted to do it but he couldn't technically do it, he didn't start to do it but that was the project. Then I was busy taking care of him more than usual plus finishing Jacquot de Nantes so as it was finished I started the renovation. And it consists to put back these three positive prints black and white like a very thick black and white print - it has to be very well adjusted. Then you refilm it in colour. You end up with a brand new negative which is exactly the same as in '64, just as colourful.
Once you've got hold of those three prints, that doesn't sound like it's going to be too horribly complicated - I'm sure there's more to it than that....
No, no, as you say, you put the three, you just film, this is it. Well, the machine just came from England, it's difficult to adjust, because they have to be more than exact because if you have it slight slight sliding then you're out of focus, plus it's quite complicated. It's simple the principle but it's complicated. Then we had to re-do the sound, find the three stripes, mix and ask Michel Legrand to come and re-mix. At that point we did it in Dolby Stereo even though it was not shot in Dolby Stereo so it's kind of poor last cousin in the family of Dolby Stereo but because with real stereo you have sound coming from everywhere, the car comes here goes out there what we did with a kind of semi-stereo (Discovers she has loast an earring), it gives a sound some roundness. Instead of coming out of one speaker it comes out three places in front. It gives a little something to the sound (something licence of stereo???????) it's not a real Dolby but it still is better and we had to redo the negative optical - the timing - because you get a new negative but it's not timed, it has not - and then shot after shot less red, plus pink, less yellow - Well, it took me four months, in and out, four months.
So when you were grading the print, you had to remember what the colours had looked like before?
Yes, that's why I did it because the director of photography was retired in the South of France. I asked him to come and he didn't want to and there was nobody - Jacques and me and knowing the decorator, the one who would have remembered colours, I could have brought him to the lab but he had a heart attack, a stroke that year so couldn't move - well I remember vividly and I could do it. So I did it day after day, but it's fine cos when it's done it was long, it's like an embroidery, you say, oh, I'll never finish this, I still have this to do, and the background and the little grey, but when it's finished and it's beautiful, you say wow and you forget the time you know.
How long did it take in all?
In and out four months.
Because it started so long ago, or you had the idea so long ago, I was visualising it took years.
No, no. Four months of my work is not nothing. The research of the things, that was before, this is not work (???), we call, we wrote, we make papers, we found the money, but working like, going to the lab. First I went to Technicolor London to have explanation and went to Technicolor Rome to have explanation. I did a real best undestanding that I could of the problem. Then the machine which came, then we had to try different stock to get the best and the long lasting colour. Look, we are out of it, it's there. Now the film is beautiful. You have the screening or not yet? You will see it because it's what the restoration does is just bring back what Jacques wanted. It's not colorisation, it's not adapting, correcting or making it shorter or wider, it's the exact film he shot, but that's the way he shot it, that's the way the colour were on the set.
And it's been seen in France and in the United States?
It came out in Paris in the same theatre where he had opened in 64 which was touching. It was incredible, like time had forgotten to exist. It stayed a long time in France and it went to all the cities in France, then it was shown beautifully on TV twice with all the brand new - because we also restore the video elements, which means restoring the numerique, the digitale numerique, they don't do it like they used to work on one inch and beta, now they have a beta numerique which holds better the contrast and the colours and frame by frame, because if there is a scratch you duplicate it. The restoration of the elements for tv and video cassette are as important. They made a beautiful evening at Canal Plus with my documentary "L'univers de Jacques Demy. Then they showed La Baie des Anges, then they showed Les Parapluies, and then it came also in new video cassette well colour and then they had an pre-opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and it opened in a cinema, they asked us for three or four weeks and kept it 14 weeks in New York and now it's going in 60 theatres in all the country and American press said for the first time they understand the film, they thought it was very sentimental, just for crying and they can see there is a violence in the fact that bourgeoisie like this. The bourgeois mother is ruining her daughter's life but in the other hand Algerian war has broken the happiness.
A very similar thing I think happened here when it first opened in the 60s. A lot of critics just dismissed it as sentimental.
I hate people who say, it means this or that. You take whatever you wish. In the film if you see it now, for some reason maybe because the colour, I think the vivid colour helps you to see the violence. That's my point. I don't know.
Because it looked beautiful people didn't look below?
It looks beautiful, it's still very sad and sentimental but some issues appear more clear now. It's the story but it has Jacques' thoughts behind and you'll have to find out whatever you think it is.
There is an anti war element in it....
You hear him sing, against war, against whatever breaks up in his life. It's like war breaks up and the mother breaks things up. It's a revolting in that but in a very sweet way you know.
There's something rather ironic and pragmatic about it. I often think if it was a Hollywood reunion they'd either have a reunion or the ending would be seen as a huge tragedy. As it is there's a far more European....
I tell you the ending that I've seen now 50 or 60 times, is very enigmatic for me, very interesting. Now a very side little things funny, like the end when they meet again, the child of love which is in the car, she brings the little girl and says, do you want to see her, and he says, no, but it's our daughter, Rosalie, the little girl was Rosalie, now she's grown up. Now in the garage the boy of Nino, is Michel Legrand's son, so we had our family there.
Rosalie played Francoise?
And Ervil(?) Legrand played the boy Francois. Besides renovating it etc, when I see the kids and think like this I have fun to see. It's like yesterday in Glasgow because I went to the French film festival in Edinburgh I introduce and spoke and had a wonderful debate about One Sings the Other Doesn't, I don't know if you remember it. But it was a feminist film and at some point they are on the road, the woman singing and they pick a man with a child on the road like hitchhiking and the little boy playing the role is Macho Demy. Now the man who presented One Sings said to the audience, you have to see the little boy, that was Macho Demy who came last year as an actor and presenter and presented another film at the film festival. That's so funny. He came with the film The Hosier, A La Belle Etoile, he was the leading actor, he was 19 or 20 but it was funny the way the man said, he came last year as an actor, well they grow up.
Umbrellas of Cherbourg I always thought was the first all sang musical film. Is that correct?
In terms of musical film yes. There was an opera called Le Medium de Minotti, avant garde opera, that Minotti himself filmed some years before and Jacques had seen that but it's different. It was a stage opera, difficult sang very much cacaphonique you know, that the composer himself made a film out of it, but almost nobody saw the film because it was a very difficult piece. It was done like this so one cannot say it was the first. I'm told Evita is entirely sang. Is that true?
It may well be. I can't remember whether there was dialogue in the stage version or not, but an awful lot of musicals now are entirely sang. As far as I can remember Umbrellas virtually broke the ground - they're not just singing about love, they're singing about car engines..
When they say, you want some gas, super, ordinaire? How old is this? 20? and somebody comes in and they say, no next door all is sang. As I tell you, because the Minotti thing, it is a film but nobody saw it, it was like a memory of the opera. I saw it it was totally sang, I saw it Jacques saw it. I remember twice. Now as a film with the desire to meet great audiences it was the first one and Jacques said, I want to do opera populaire, it was his word. Like in the opera but populaire like the cinema not those incredible voices, incredible songs. He wanted to keep the singing and he discuss with Michel Legrand as near as possible to the (spoken) voice, even though the melodies are beautiful, but like a conversation that any thought and he's right that after a while you get used to it. You don't think it's so odd to sing everything.
You very quickly get used to it. It sounds bizarre to talk about car engines sang in music but it doesn't sound bizarre.
After seven/eight minutes you just accept it as a way of thinking.
Where did your husband's love of the musical come from?
You have to see Jacquot de Nantes my dear, because when he was young he went to what we call operette, you know what operetta is, those kind of early musical, some very nice but some not too good and his mother would take him to the theatre - No No Nanette and Veronique, all these not very good things but sometimes Offenbach so in Jacquot I reconstructed an operetta that he goes and sees and is so happy and he loved operetta.
How about the Hollywood musical? In Young Girls he imported Gene Kelly and George Chakiris from Hollywood.
In the more classical. (Stuff about must go in 10 mins.) Young Girls of Rochefort is a classical musical a l'americaine but in a French setting, very classical architecture so it makes it very different. It doesn't look very Hollywood to me. But it has the shape, typical they speak, they sing, they speak they sing. He wanted that. He imported Gene Kelly because he loved him, and he wanted a good dancer, he asked Chakiris.
Young Girls has dialogue in it?
You never saw that?
No, in fact a lot of people are asking now if that could be restored.
It is. I'm doing it. I'm fed up with restoration I must say. I'm tired of doing but I tell you sometimes when lost in the desert and you have a problem with your car, the only one who is mechanic fix it. At some point I'm the one able to do it so I do it.
Why do you think Umbrellas in particular is well loved and remembered and regarded as so important?
Many things. First it's a beautiful film. Then it won the Palme d'Or in Cannes, then it was nominated for the Oscars, five nominations, best music....I can't remember and it's loved so this is it. It even happened that they did three stage musicals. I didn't like them but in Tokyo, in NY and in Paris they did a stage version. Some four years after the film, late 60s and Tokyo was a little later, Paris in the 70s, but it doesn't for me have the magic of the film at all.
So is that what makes the film so important, this particular magic?
It's well done, it's a film, you know, the way Jacques handled the combination of movement, the camera and music and emotion and directing the actors and the beauty of the actors. Nobody is suffering from Catherine Deneuve being 20!
She doesn't seem to have changed much in 30 years. A little more about you....
Among this painful restoration I'm restoring Le Bonheur (her own film) because I'm in the process of restoration I did one of mine because I also had the same producer, (Mag Bodard) she had done the same positive things. Jacques told her to do it at the time. Too bad she didn't do it for Young Girls of Rochefort, so it's much more difficult, I can't explain, too complicated.
It's not a matter of knitting three prints together?
No, we got to do it for Young Girls. On Le Bonheur and Les Parapluies we have that process.
So you're in the process of restoring Rochefort and Le Bonheur?
Which is almost finished. Before the end of the year I'm finished with these technical things. I go to the lab every day, or almost every day and when my office call in the morning and say, can you do Friday morning at the lab and Monday afternoon they wait for you and Tuesday morning and its one hour and a half drive to go to that lab and back. Now I have music in my car and I even put a telephone because I'm doing so much driving to do this to go to that lab. In the North of Paris. We can organise. I will try myself to go back to myself in 97.
You mentioned earlier you're known as the grandmother of the New Wave. Do you regard that as a compliment or an irritant?
As a compliment, better to be the first than the last. I was a pioneer and a pioneer is always somebody who looks for adventure and I've done a lot of cinematic adventure. I did a film in Hollywood called Lion's Love and I made different films, more or less known because few people know them. I've been doing strange films and I still see myself as "une tete chercheuse" - a searching head, (searching mind) because in industry they need to have people like looking, could we do this, trying not to be not only just repeating myself. I don't repeat myself but I just started before because my ideas at the time, became the ideas of what has been called the New Wave like start as a younger filmmaker with less money. Do films in which most of the time someone's walking endlessly, this is the mark of the New Wave. I would say I am very lucky that my film's are not forgotten. People speak about Cleo from 5-7 all the time, and this is in 62 when it came, 42 years after.
You didn't have an easy time raising money for your films?
Always difficult, it still is now. My last film is called 101 Nights was selected at the Berlin film festival, was OK, is opening in Japan soon, have just come back from Japan promoting the opening but French cinema doesn't come to UK. Very little.
Some does. Le Bonheur and Cleo did.
But those came 30 years ago. At that time they did fine.So did Vagabonde but this is already 10 years ago. In the last 5 years not many French films have been distributed.
Not compared to the amount made.
And even the British television, they're not so thrilled to buy French films now. The economic situation has changed a lot. I'm grateful to the Bureau du Cinema, the French minister, to have made this brand new print of six of my films in six copies of each, so my series is here, was at Edinburgh, it's going to India, it's going to many countires, to Mexico, Cinematheque of Hollywood, MOMA will show them and it's nice to know they have a certain sense of culture (chuckles).
So your six nice new prints of those six films ...
36. Six times six. Are going around the world, well printed, with programme which has been organised. It's nice because it's a way of saying even if I knew film is not right now playing it's an opportunity for people to see them, to discuss them, to not forget me (gets confused with forgive me!) which we rather know before we die than after.
So this is an enterprise by the Bureau de Cinema of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? So they put up the money for a nice set of prints of six of your films to do a world tour?
That's what it is and I go, when I can.....I can't do the tour de monde, but I'm invited everywhere, I could go to India, to Estonia, to Copenhagen, they asked me to - I have to work, I'm not a sales person. I came here because it was interesting to combine Edinburgh and Glasgow and here in the three cities they were shown and some people like my films. Otherwise a man and a woman, a wife - they say they like my films they say they saw the whole series in Glasgow and the whole series in Edinburgh, it's not that far, a one hour drive but because it was combined it was almost drive every other day to get to see them twice
Do you think anybody's likely, now there are now nice spanking new prints of your movies, to take them up for commercial release again?
We hope so. There is demand now, it's coming back into fashion now. There is demand of remake of Cleo which is second time. The first time, Madonna wanted to do a remake of Cleo from 5-7. I love that woman. Ten years ago she would have been perfect, but then she was upset because her mother died of cancer, she had so much too much on that. Now there is someone else asking for the remake rights in America. I may re-release them. Cleo was rereleased in France 8 years ago, did very well. When I have fixed Le Bonheur - I don't know if it is the right time for Le Bonheur, I'm not sure, you have to think about the way audiences are oriented. Sometimes it's not the right time.
I was thinking Vagabonde, which was very successful...
Successful - meaningful for the people, that's what made it successful. It also won the Golden Lion at Venice, this helps a little and Sandrine was exceptionally interesting also.
And the documentary technique in the fictional film.
Well it's a documentary texture, it makes it believable.
That came nine years after your previous film and we had to wait another five/sixyears for Jacquot?
But I've done films in between that you didn't see. I made Jane B by Agnes V, Kung Fu Master, then Jacquot, since Jacquot I made Young Girls at 25, 101 Nights with an incredible cast - de Niro, Delon, Deneuve, all the "de", Depardieu, Gina Lollogbrigida.
A celebration of 100 years of cinema?
It was a fiction around all that. Since I do documentaries now everybody thinks I only do that. It was a fiction with very wonderful actors in it. The story is, Monsieur Cinema is 100 years old, his name is M. Cinema, and his memory's totally fucked up (I think!) so he hires a very young girl to help him work his memory about cinema, then he has visitors, so those visitors, like when Depardieu came to visit him and we had Alain Delon spend a little visit and because his visitors are famous and he make mixed up the whole thing it becomes a kind of comedy about memory. But this did not come here. We not even invited to the London film festival. Michel Piccoli plays M. Cinema. Well he has such a....
Do you have another film lined up?
No not because I will come back to myself in 97. I may have some inspiration, I may make another film.
I heard you were having lunch with Jeremy Thomas.
He co-produced 101 Nights, that film and finally got out of the production because he was doing the Bertolucci film, but at the beginning he was the co-producer and we remained friends, specially with one of his line producers there, Belleville(?) that I've known for so many years. No, I'm not in business if this is what you mean. I don't have a deal signed or something. I always wait to be sure my mind is oriented, my desire, my energy, I work out of inspiration, I don't do deals, do business, I don't even make a career you know, I make films.
You've just published your autobiography Varda par Agnes.
Do you think you go to French Institute. They sell it there. 400 images (illustrations?) It's about my life as a filmmaker but because I'm a woman and that is the way we live, it includes other things you know but I tell mostly how a film starts because I think this is the mystery. Why I do this film and not another and stories about the shooting and images - it's a huge book but I made it I was 40 years of filmmaking, in 94, when I had started my first feature in 54.
Likely to be translated into English?
I would like to. There was a little discussion in New York. So far no, I'd love somebody to do that, but will they print it? You know, money is always one of the problems, not to say the hugest one.