Agnès Varda on “Visages Villages”: “Nothing was staged or rehearsed, it was all very spontaneous”

She has been praised and hailed as the grandmother of the French New Wave cinema. Now, at age 89, Agnès Varda, the illustrious Belgian-born filmmaker from Elsene [Ixelles, near Brussels] where she was born in 1928 – a year before Audrey Hepburn was born in the same Brussels community about a mile away from Ms. Varda’s birth house – she was recently awarded the Golden Eye Award at the latest Cannes Film Festival for her personalized documentary “Visages Villages” (U.S. title “Faces Places”), the art house project of this summer, which she made with 33-year-old French art celebrity and hipster visual artist JR, as they both hit the road in search of French rural people and life.

Ms. Varda, previously winner of the Berlin Festival’s Silver Bear, the Cannes Festival’s Golden Palm, the Venice Festival’s Golden Lion, as well as three Césars and numerous awards in the U.S., including three from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is undoubtedly the world’s most ageless filmmaker. She’s considered to be the founder of the New Wave cinema movement with her screen debut “La pointe-courte” (1955) and “Cléo de 5 à 7” (1962), paving the way for her contemporaries, including François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

For “Visages Villages,” which she considers to be her final film, she and JR traveled the French countryside as a pair: they took pictures of the people they met – from ex-miners to factory workers, waitresses, or spouses of dock workers – and pasted them as gigantic portraits on the sides of old houses and city walls.

“JR makes portraits of people, and he works with people with this magical photo truck of his, the one you see in ‘Visages Villages,’ to create oversize images of ordinary people and really do something interesting with those huge black and white stills,” Agnes Varda says. Photograph: Leo Verswijver

Ms. Varda was previously married to French filmmaker Jacques Demy from 1962 until his death at age 59 in 1990. His long list of credits include two early Catherine Deneuve screen classics “Les parapluies de Cherbourg” (a.k.a. “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” 1964) and “Les demoiselles de Rochefort” (a.k.a. “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” 1967), both Academy Award nominated in various categories and earning Mr. Demy a total of four Academy Award nominations.

As a photographer, filmmaker and visual artist, Ms. Varda became a central figure of the French New Wave in its early years, with location shooting, natural light, and using non-professional actors as some of her main ingredients.

I met her at a Brussels hotel only a few days ago, when she came to her city of birth to promote her latest film project, “Visages Villages.”

Ms. Varda, you’ve been making films for over sixty years now. A lot has changed since the mid-1950s, hasn’t it?

Of course, and I also learned a few things along the way [laughs]. You know, during the past twenty years, I only did documentaries. In “Les plages d’Agnès” [a.k.a. “The Beaches of Agnès,” 2008], I talked about my life and about the people I’ve met through the years, people who loved me and that I loved – that was really a documentary. Even though I focused on a lot of people, it was a very personal project, very dear to me, and it was also my last film. That is until I met JR, pretty much by accident. He had made a film “Women Are Heroes” [2010] about women from all over the world. Unfortunately it wasn’t too successful, but he had the ability to really listen to the people he met. So my daughter [Rosalie] suggested that I’d meet with him, and when I did, it was like a coup de foudre artistique: we simply knew right away that we would work together on a project, so that’s how “Visages Villages” came about. We had the same taste, and we looked at people exactly the same way: they are valuable and important. JR makes portraits of people, and he works with people with this magical photo truck of his, the one you see in “Visages Villages,” to create oversize images of ordinary people and really do something interesting with those huge black and white stills. It turned out that all of those people had a wonderful imagination, they were inventive, and they came up with great ideas that we used in our film, and they all were wonderful storytellers. Take for example this man who’s about to retire, we met him during his final day at work. The way he talked about his job, his upcoming retirement, that wasn’t the language of politicians, this was a real person who spoke straight from the heart. So the people you get to see are not actors, they are real people telling their own stories. Like the dockworkers and their wives, they came up with all of the ideas themselves.

Friendship and respect between two awesome visual artists: Agnès Varda and JR. Photograph: Cineart

Did you talk to those people before you started shooting?

No, not at all. We met with them just out of the blue, we started talking and the camera started registering everything right away. That was the joy of it. Never underestimate your audience: people are very intelligent, they have a tremendous amount of empathy and they are willing to express themselves very beautifully once you gain their trust. And then of course there is JR: he’s tall, funny and has lots of wonderful ideas. Do you remember this coalminer’s daughter who reminisces about her life? She was just so great, but she would never have opened up the way she did if we were a crew from the TV news. JR really took her into his arms and cherished her. Nothing was staged or rehearsed, it was all very spontaneous. So our main goal was to listen to the people we encountered in all the places we went to in France – what were their stories, how did they feel, what was their lives like, and how surprising they were if you gave them enough time to tell their story. They’d never make the headlines, but those were real spontaneous people with a beating heart, you know what I mean? I regret that JR is not here today, because up until now we did most of our interviews and press conferences together. Yesterday we were in Bologna [Italy] where the film was shown on a huge screen in the city’s main square for three thousand people – free entrance, and that’s what we really like. We were very happy, because it’s nice to show a movie to an audience when they don’t have to pay for it, which of course is impossible to do all the time. A film costs a lot of money to make, so you need to earn it back. But the audience really enjoyed and loved the movie, which made it a wonderful experience for us. But let me ask you, were you moved when you saw the film?

Absolutely.

That’s very nice to hear. I wanted the audience to be moved by things that were not suspenseful, no action sequences nor drama. There is no violence, no guns – everything that’s in today’s cinema, is not in “Visages Villages.”

How to use your imagination and inspiration at a coalminer’s site: “Visages Villages” at its best. Photograph: Cineart

Did the people you met with in your film also get the chance to see the film and, if so, how did they respond?

The film was released nation wide in France last Wednesday [June 28], but we had screened it previously in Le Havre and the response made us tremendously happy. We were very much aware that if those people wouldn’t have been available, we had nothing. No film. But the coalminer’s daughter, for example, was very moved and she said she ‘will always be grateful to JR and Agnès Varda’ – those are emotions that will last a lifetime.

What did your shooting schedule look like?

Because I get tired easily at my age, we only shot one week per month. Thanks to my daughter Rosalie, who produced the film, we were able to work this way. It also allowed us to do more research and find other angles. In the meantime, I also did other things, like an exhibition in New York for example – things that were also important to me.

Did you edit the film chronologically?

More or less, especially in the beginning, just to see what the footage was like up until then. But when I finally edited the film, it took me about five months. JR and I stayed in touch the whole time, he dropped by once or twice a week and he always came up with new ideas, like the photographs of my feet and my eyes. “You can’t travel too much anymore, so let your feet and your eyes do the travelling now,” he said. But generally speaking, most of the material we shot, it also ended up in the film.

Meeting with Jean-Luc Godard, a long-time friend and creative colleague of yours, at his Swiss home, is another important issue in the film. Can you tell something about that?

His assistant had called me and suggested me to come over by nine-thirty in the morning. So we went to the village where he resides, stayed at a hotel, just to make sure we’d be there in time and wouldn’t be too late to meet with him. But when we arrived there, nobody opened the door.

That was too bad. It was very clear you were deeply hurt. Did you hear anything from him later on?

No, I didn’t. I did send him the DVD of the film though. He’s a very intelligent man, and I absolutely adore his work. But it really hurt me that he didn’t want us to get together again.

At the Cannes Film Festival, the film was not in competition, but yet it was very successful, wasn’t it?

Well, let me tell you, the film was screened at six o’clock in the evening. Which is very modestly, I must say. No red carpet or anything. Sandrine Bonnaire [Ms. Varda’s leading lady in “Sans toit ni loi,” 1984] was there, and she was very moved. We were awarded the Red Eye Award [Best Documentary in ‘Un Certain Regard,’ a section of the Cannes Film Festival’s official selection]. That was totally unexpected, so we were very happy. Last Wednesday the film was released in France, and it seems to be doing very well – at least, that’s what I heard only moments ago. I learned many years ago that all the distributors check their box-office receipts right away on Monday morning [laughs].

Would you ever consider to work in Belgium again?

A number of sequences of “Les plages d’Agnès” were shot right here in Belgium, also in the house in Elsene [Ixelles] where I grew up. The man who lived there, got in touch with me. He wanted to sell the house and he asked me if I would be interested to see it again. Of course I was! As a documentary maker, you’re curious – you have to be – to see what goes on in your life and in other people’s lives, and in this case going back to my childhood was very dear to me. This is what I also pointed out in “Les plages d’Agnès.”

Do you already have another project that you’re currently working on?

I did a lot of press recently, and still have to go to a lot of places like Arles, but I also plan to write a book about the movie. I have grandchildren in Paris too, and grandchildren from Los Angeles who are flying in today, so I got a lot of things to do [laughs].

Brussels (Belgium),
July 3, 2017

The trailer of “Visages Villages”

FILMS

LA POINTE-COURTE (1955) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda CAM Louis Stein, Louis Soulanes, Paul Soulignac ED Alain Resnais MUS Pierre Barbaud CAST Philippe Noiret, Silvia Monfort

CLÉO DE 5 À 7, US title CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (1962) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda PROD Carlo Ponti, Georges de Beauregard CAM Paul Bonis, Jean Rabier, Alain Levent ED Pascale Laverrière, Janine Verneau MUS Michel Legrand CAST Corinne Marchand, Antoine Boursellier, Dominique Davray, Dorothée Blank, Michel Legrand, José Luis de Vilallonga, Jean-Claude Brialy, Eddie Constantine, Sami Frey, Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, Yves Robert

LE BONHEUR (1965) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda PROD Mag Bodard CAM Claude Beausoleil, Jean Rabier ED Janine Verneau MUS Jean-Michel Defaye CAST Jean-Claude Drouot, Claire Drouot, Olivier Drouot, Sandrine Drouot, Marie-France Boyer, Marcelle Faure-Bertin

LES CRÉATURES, US title THE CREATURES (1966) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda PROD Mag Bodard CAM Willy Kurant, Jan Orjollet, William Lubtchansky ED Janine Verneau, Maria de Lourdes Osorio MUS Pierre Barbaud CAST Catherine Deneuve, Michel Piccoli, Eva Dahlbeck, Marie-France Mignal, Britta Pettersson, Ursula Kubler, Jeanne Allard

LIONS, LOVE… AND LIES (1969) DIR – PROD – SCR Agnès Varda CAM Stevan Larner ED Carolyn Hicks, Robert Dalva MUS Joseph Byrd CAST Viva, Gerome Ragni, James Rado, Shirley Clarke, Carlos Clarens, Eddie Constantine, Max Laemmle, Peter Bogdanovich, Rip Torn, Andy Warhol, Agnès Varda (uncredited)

L’UN CHANTE, L’AUTRE PAS, a.k.a. ONE SINGS, THE OTHER DOESN’T (1977) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda CAM Charles Van Damme ED Joële Van Effenterre MUS François Wertheimer CAST Thérèse Liotard, Valérie Mairesse, Robert Dadiès, Mona Mairesse, Francis Lemaire, François Courbin, Ali Rafie, Gisèle Halimi, Salomé Wimille, Mathieu Demy

DOCUMENTEUR, a.k.a. DOCUMENTEUR: AN EMOTIONAL PICTURE (1981) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda CAM Nurith Aviv, Bob Carr, Affonso Beato ED Sabine Mamou, Bob Gould MUS Georges Delerue CAST Sabine Mamou, Mathieu Demy, Lisa Blok-Linson, Tina Odom, Gary Feldman, Tom Taplin, Fred Ricker, Delphine Seyrig (voice only)

SANS TOIT NI LOI, US title VAGABOND (1985) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda PROD Oury Milshtein CAM Patrick Blossier ED Agnès Varda, Patricia Mazuy MUS Joanna Bruzdowicz CAST Sandrine Bonnaire, Macha Méril, Stéphane Freiss, Setti Ramdane, Francis Balchère, Jean-Louis Perletti, Urbain Causse

KUNG-FU MASTER! (1988) DIR Agnès Varda SCR Agnès Varda (story by Jane Birkin) CAM Pierre-Laurent Chénieux ED Marie-Josée Audiard MUS Joanna Bruzdowicz CAST Jane Birkin, Mathieu Demy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lou Doillon, Gary Chekchak, Cyril Houplain, Frank Laurent

JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V., a.k.a. JANE B. FOR AGNÈS V. (1988) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda CAM Nurith Aviv, Pierre-Laurent Chénieux ED Agnès Varda, Marie-Josée Audiard MUS  CAST Jane Birkin, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Philippe Léotard, Farid Chopel, Alain Souchon, Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Mathieu Demy, Agnès Varda (Herself)

JACQUOT DE NANTES, a.k.a. JACQUOT (1991) DIR Agnès Varda SCR Agnès Varda (memoirs by Jacques Demy) CAM Patrick Blossier, Georges Strouvé, Agnès Godard ED Marie-Josée Audiard MUS Joanna Bruzdowicz CAST Philippe Maron, Edouard Joubeaud, Laurent Monnier, Brigitte De Villepoix, Daniel Dublet, Clément Delaroche, Rody Averty

LES CENT ET UNE NUITS DE SIMON CINÉMA, US title ONE HUNDRED AND ONE NIGHTS and ONE HUNDRED AND ONE NIGHTS OF SIMON CINEMA (1995) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda PROD Dominique Vignet CAM Eric Gautier ED Hughes Darmois CAST Michel Piccoli, Marcello Mastroianni, Henri Garcin, Julie Gayet, Mathieu Demy, Emmanuel Salinger, Anouk Aimée, Fanny Ardant, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sandrine Bonnaire, Jean-Claude Brialy, Patrick Bruel, Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Harrison Ford, Gina Lollobrigida, Jeanne Moreau, Hanna Schygulla, Abine Azéma, Jane Birkin, Andréa Ferréol, Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Autheuil, Clint Eastwood, Virna Lisi, Daryl Hannah, Emily Lloyd, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Martin Sheen, Harry Dean Stanton

TV MOVIE

NAUSICAA (1970) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda CAM Charlie Gaëta ED Germaine Cohen MUS Mikis Theodorakis CAST France Dougnac, Myriam Boyer, Stavros Tornes, Catherine de Seynes, Gérard Depardieu, Elisabeth Depardieu

DOCUMENTARIES

DAGUERRÉOTYPES (1976) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda CAST Rosalie Varda

MUR MURS (1981) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda CAM Nurith Aviv ED Bob Gould, Sabine Mamou CAST Juliet Berto, Judy Baca, Mathieu Demy, Arno Jordan, Kent Twitchell

LES DEMOISELLES ONT EU 25 ANS, a.k.a. THE YOUNG GIRLS TURN 25 (1993) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda CAM Agnès Varda, Georges Strouvé, Alexandre Auffort, Stéphane Krausz, Patrick Mounoud ED  MUS Michel Legrand, Jacques Loussier CAST Catherine Deneuve, Agnès Varda, Michel Legrand, Jacques Perrin, Bertrand Tavernier, Mag Bodard, Bernard Evein, Jean-Louis Frot

L’UNIVERS DE JACQUES DEMY, US title THE WORLD OF JACQUES DEMY (1995) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda CAM Peter Pilafian, Stéphane Krausz, Georges Strouvé ED Marie-Josée Audiard MUS Michel Legrand, Michel Colombier CAST Anouk Aimée, Richard Berry, Nino Castelnuovo, Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Fabian, Harrison Ford, Jeanne Moreau, Jacques Perrin, Michel Piccoli, Dominique Sanda, Anne Vernon, Michel Legrand, Claude Berri, Mathieu Demy, Bertrand Tavernier, Rosalie Varda

LES GLANEURS ET LA GLANEUSE, US title THE GLEANERS & I (2000) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda CAM Agnès Varda, Didier Roussin, Pascal Sautelet, Stéphane Krausz, Didier Rouget ED Agnès Varda, Jean-Baptiste Morin, Laurent Pineau MUS Joanna Bruzdowicz, Isabelle Olivier CAST Agnès Varda, Bodan Litnanski, François Wertheimer

LES GLANEURS ET LA GLANEUSE… DEUX ANS APRÈS, US title THE GLEANERS & I: TWO YEARS LATER (2002) DIR – PROD – SCR Agnès Varda CAM Agnès Varda, Stéphane Krausz ED Agnès Varda, Jean-Baptiste Morin MUS Joanna Bruzdowicz, Isabelle Olivier, François Wertheimer CAST Agnès Varda, Bodan Litnanski, Macha Makeïeff, François Wertheimer

CINÉVARDAPHOTO (2004) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda

QUELQUES VEUVES DE NOIRMOUTIER (2006) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda

LES PLAGES D’AGNÈS, a.k.a. THE BEACHES OF AGNÈS (2008) DIR – PROD – SCR Agnès Varda CAM Agnès Varda, Julia Fabry, Alain Sakot, Hélène Louvart, Arlene Nelson ED Baptiste Filloux, Jean-Baptiste Morin CAST Agnès Varda, André Lubrano, Blaise Fournier, Vincent Fournier, Andrée Vilar, Rosalie Varda, Mathieu Demy

VISAGES VILLAGES, US title FACES PLACES (2017) DIR – SCR Agnès Varda, JR PROD Olivier Père CAM Claire Duguet, Romain Le Bonniec ED Maxime Pozzi-Garcia CAST Agnès Varda, JR, Mimi