Locarno Honor Marks the Latest of Agnes Varda’s Lifetime Achievements

Once a footnote to the French New Wave, the indie filmmaker whose work inspired that movement is finally getting her due

Locarno Honor Marks the Latest of
Dan Doperalski for Variety

2014 is shaping up to be the Year of Agnes Varda.

This week, the free-spirited French director will receive the Pardo d’onore Swisscom at the Locarno Film Festival, which is just the latest in a series of honors, distinctions, appearances, exhibitions, restorations, retrospectives, seances, soirees and other all-around cool happenings that this 86-year-old filmmaker, photographer and artist has been involved in so far this year.

For the uninitiated, Varda is one of the key innovators of independent cinema in France. Long before John Cassavetes picked up a camera in the States, before the French New Wave was even a swell on the horizon, Varda had the impulse to make a personal movie called “La Pointe courte,” which launched the film careers of actor Philippe Noiret, herself and (to some extent) the editor who agreed to help Varda how to assemble her first feature, Alain Resnais.

That was 1955. Resnais went on to become a major filmmaker as well, borrowing the concept of parallel editing he’d used on “La Pointe courte” for “Hiroshima mon amour.” When first confronted with Varda’s footage, Resnais remarked, “This is a radical film,” advising the self-taught helmer not to lose what made the film unique and weird: “You must not make it normal!” Nearly six decades later, Varda still clings to those words.

Today, she is perhaps the youngest 86-year-old alive. Whereas others seem to lose touch with their childlike curiosity, she continues to view the world with wonder — and she shares that perspective with others via her photography, films and other artistic installation projects (one of which enjoyed an extended showing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, from last November until June of this year). In February, she unveiled a collection of “Triptyques atypiques” at the Nathalie Obadia Gallery in Paris. And just last month, she exhibited a series of videos and photographs at the Chateau d’If, the famous castle off the coast of Marseille where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned.

Given all this activity, I have seen Varda in person no fewer than half a dozen times in the past year, and two weeks before Locarno, she invited me to her house on Rue Daguerre in Paris. I won’t divulge the address, but it’s easy to find: Look for the big purple facade just across from Cine-Tamaris, the atelier-slash-gift shop of her production company. When Varda is not traveling the world, she can often be found in this space, from which she holds court with those who admire her films — and those of her late husband, Jacques Demy, the flamboyant romantic responsible for “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”

I had often wondered what was behind the bright magenta wall across the street, and finally, I would have the chance to find out. The house is Varda’s signature hue: a cross between burgundy and rich, ripe eggplant. There’s not quite as much purple behind the door, although in Varda’s courtyard, the tables and chairs have been painted a deep fuschia to match her flowers, and when she appears, the color is there in her wardrobe and playful Mount Fuji-like hairstyle, which is capped with snowy white and ringed with a halo of aubergine around the edges.

In the grand catalog of human eccentricities, a love for color is about as innocuous as they come — a quality she shares with her Uncle Yanco, a hippie artist she discovered living on a houseboat in Sausalito. Varda made a short documentary portrait of this distant relative in 1967, just one of five films she directed during her time in California. Still, Varda is best known for her French-language work, especially “Cleo From 5 to 7,” a still-radical 1962 gem, told almost in real time as a beautiful French singer frets what she is sure will be a fatal diagnosis from her doctor; and 1985’s “Vagabond,” an empathetic portrait of a homeless girl found frozen by the side of the road; as well as two autobiographical essay films, “The Gleaners and I” and “The Beaches of Agnes,” made late in her career.

But thanks to the support of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, “Uncle Yanco” and four other pics made in California have been restored. Three of these — “Lions Love ( … and Lies),” “Documenteur,” and “Uncle Yanco” — will play as part of an eight-film retrospective in Locarno this week, though she’s more nervous about what kind of reception her American-made work will have in France, where they reopened in theaters on July 30. (She has also been discussing plans to release the California pics in the U.S. via the Criterion Collection.) An enormous poster for the series hangs in the window of Cine-Tamaris offices, to which Varda has pinned a tiny disclaimer that reads, “Quelques seances” (meaning “for just a few screenings”).

“I have to tell the truth,” she explains. “Sure, they are coming out in (Paris), Marseilles, Provence and lots of locations, but they are only showing four or five times, or maybe for one week.” Even in France, where Varda is something of a national hero and audiences seem to have a greater appetite for watching old movies in theaters, times are tough for repertory cinema.

“You have to fight,” says Varda, who measures her success by a different standard from most filmmakers. “There’s a quality you must have, and that’s resistance — resistance against worthless things and gossip. I resisted such nonsense, because the general spirit can be foolish. It’s driven by the success of money, and you must truly resist that.” That’s why she hopes that in a market where a popular French comedy like “Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu?” can earn 10 million entries in theaters that there are 10,000 people who will want to see her restored California films — “beautiful films that we restored with lots of money and lots of love.”

It’s too late to get rich, and that was never Varda’s aim anyway. “I have held a line since ‘La Pointe courte’ with no compromises,” she tells me. “By making commercials, (other directors) could earn as much as they might working for six months on a film. Me, I didn’t want to do publicity for beauty products and perfumes.” (Though she concedes that she did film two advertisements during her career, both of which can be found on a bonus disc in the recently released boxed set of her complete oeuvre.)

Instead, during the breaks in a career of extremely personal and often format-challenging features, she made commissioned films for tourist bureaus (about the Cote d’Azur and the castles of the Loire, for example), public television and various other organizations, including a short film about the caryatids — or sculpted female figures — that grace the buildings of Paris. And yet, even these films retain Varda’s unique voice.

One of her California projects, “Mur murs,” falls into this category: a docu-essay about the painted murals she noticed throughout Los Angeles in 1980. This seemingly marginal artifact now serves as an invaluable time capsule of the city’s past, as the director guilelessly follows her curiosity into black and Hispanic neighborhoods so seldom shown in American film.

Varda was delighted to learn to that attendance had swelled for her LACMA exposition during its final two months. “That was an extraordinary success for me, a little French woman, since there aren’t many French artists invited to show their work in America,” says Varda, who was inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences last summer — part of a diverse group that also included Lena Dunham, Ava DuVernay and Steve McQueen.

It was a surreal and somewhat overwhelming experience for the director to receive the deluge of screeners DVDs sent to Oscar voters for the first time. Varda demurely claims not to remember how she voted in the Oscars’ best picture category, but readily volunteers that she thought “Stranger by the Lake” was the best of the French pics nominated for the Cesar. (She’s right, though it lost to “Me, Myself and Mum.”)

Varda has won three Cesars over the course of her career, as well as three prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. These days, she’s starting to collect her share of lifetime achievement trophies, of which Locarno’s Pardo d’onore is merely the latest. She stores these exotically sculpted curios in a glass-faced cabinet that sits in the corner of her living room, the way someone might display a collection of heirloom crystal or Hummel figurines. It’s not that she isn’t proud. Varda has worked hard to support a career of relative artistic freedom. It’s just that she’s too modest to arrange her trophies any more garishly — and besides, the work itself is what she’s most excited to share with audiences.

For the moment, her attention is on the California films. Last Wednesday night, she introduced several screenings in person in Paris before flying to Locarno. “Every time I announce that I will be there, it’s full, but I can’t spend my life going wherever my films screen,” she says, sounding slightly wearier than her typically youthful self.

Still, I have never encountered a more approachable filmmaker. The first time I attended the Cannes Film Festival, I scheduled a short visit to Paris afterwards. I had read that Varda welcomed fans and made it a point to look her up while in town, and sure enough, there in her Cine-Tamaris atelier was Varda, who took a break from editing a television commission to share a pot of tea.

Her films are so personal that it’s easy to convince yourself that you know the artist responsible for creating them. For example, ”Documenteur” is a heartbreaking portrait of a single mother coping with loneliness in Los Angeles, co-starring Varda’s own son, Mathieu Demy (who also appears as the underage object of Jane Birkin’s obsession in the slightly creepier, but no less honest “Kung Fu Master”). Meanwhile, Varda seems genuinely elated to interact with her audience. It’s as if each of her films were a bottle cast to sea, and there she waits, standing on her own self-made beach, eager to hear where the message ended up and how it touched the person that discovered it.

“I receive amazing letters from gracious people in little towns who have a tiny cultural center with 40 to 50 people. They invite me to come, offering to put me up in a small house, where they give me their daughter’s room,” she says. “I’ve done that many times, and I love it, though I’m starting to say no. And yet, this suggests something extraordinary. It means that they have access to my films and to me. Honestly, I don’t think they would ask the same thing of Scorsese.”