Agnès Varda - Grande dame of the New Wave

Agnès Varda has been making films for more than 50 years and her Cleo from 5 to 7 was a landmark in French cinema. And she's not finished yet, she tells Sheila Johnston, who meets the director at her home

There is no sign or nameplate on the double-fronted house at the end of the Left Bank street. But you're unlikely to miss the facade, flamboyant and elegant, painted in shades of burgundy and dusty pink. This is the private queendom of Agnès Varda, vanguard New Wave film-maker (the lone female voice in that cosy all-boys club), national treasure, internationally fêted artist, grand octogenarian eccentric.

Inside, a warren of rooms are packed to the rafters with the treasure trove of a lifelong traveller and compulsive collector: Varda, 82, has lived here since 1951. A cabinet bulges with awards, both for Varda and her late husband, the director Jacques Demy. On a shelf in the hallway a Berlin Bear for Varda's Le Bonheur (1965) nuzzles up to an old teddy bear. Files are marked "Friends: France", "Friends: abroad", "Postcards".

Cats and people drift in and out. Mathieu, her son by Demy, breezes in. Rosalie, Varda's daughter from a previous relationship, lives next door. Isabelle Huppert is expected later. There's a welcoming, bohemian air to the place, and Varda herself, with her flowing, colourful clothes, round face and trademark pudding-basin hairdo, looks like a slightly bonkers little old lady, a role she cleverly exploits in the documentaries both to send herself up and to put her subjects at ease. But you quickly understand that she runs her show – as she must – with military precision.

"I haven't made that many films compared to some directors, but over 50 years, you build up a body of work," Varda says, and indeed she has been prolific. The features are only part of it: many of her movies are a mix of documentary and fiction, and she is a mistress of the pithy essay-film – 2008's The Beaches of Agnès, a light-hearted, compendious tour through her life and work, had a valedictory air. But it's soon clear that this was a false impression.

Arriving early, I find Varda across the road in a shop she has turned into an editing suite. Glued to the screen, she scrutinises footage shot recently in Mexico with a lightweight DV camera: skyscrapers, a peasant woman selling baskets at a market, the director Carlos Reygadas in his garden surrounded by agaves. She cuts the images together briskly, with a keen eye for detail: these fragmentary impressions will eventually coalesce into a six-part television series. "I love editing – it's at that stage that a film is created," she says. At one o'clock sharp, the pre-arranged time, she calls a break and we move to a little courtyard surrounded with plants for a "light lunch" (which, this being France, is naturally a simple but excellent five-course feast). Varda tucks in with the same voracious appetite she applies to exploring the world.

"I've always tried to do different things, not to repeat myself," she says. "But when I was looking for extracts from my films to use in The Beaches of Agnès, I did find a certain consistency. There are almost no night scenes – I don't like the night and I don't like shooting by night. And I've almost never filmed bourgeois characters in a bourgeois setting even though there are good stories to be told about them. I realised I was much more interested in giving a voice to people on the margins."

Varda's subjects have included fishermen (in her debut, La Pointe Courte, 1954), Californian hippies (Lions Love, 1969), Los Angeles mural artists (Mur Murs, 1980), a female tramp (Vagabond, 1985) and foragers, in The Gleaners and I (2000), an ahead-of-its-time documentary about the excesses of western consumerism. "People 60 years my junior came towards me after that because a lot of them are concerned about ecological issues. A young man paid me a lovely compliment: he said, 'Congratulations, your film is magnificent, it makes me want to be old'." Varda lets out a hearty laugh. "I said, 'Hold on, let's not exaggerate!'"

Summarised thus, her films sound earnest, but they are not: they're studded with throwaway humour. "They're all rooted in a difficult social reality, but I don't want to be Madame la Sociologue." Varda's one full-blown comedy, A Hundred and One Nights (1995), a fantasy with a stellar cast including Michel Piccoli, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve and Alain Delon, was a critical and commercial flop. "People like to put you in a pigeonhole," she says, shrugging. "But I'm cool about it. If a film doesn't work, I'll move on to something else."

A new print of Varda's second feature, Cleo from 5 to 7, still looking bandbox fresh and trail-blazingly brilliant has recently been released. "People talk to me about it as though I'd made it yesterday," she says proudly. "Even though it was 50 years ago, my dear." The film – which contains set-pieces of great technical virtuosity – is in some ways a love letter to swinging Paris, tracking Cleo, a beautiful blonde, as she sashays through the streets. The action unfolds in real time. "The city authorities wouldn't let me change any of the clocks – they said it would confuse people – so if Cleo went past a clock in the story at 6.10, we had to shoot that scene at exactly 6.10. I had to prepare carefully and be very well organised. But it's exciting to set yourself constraints and challenges."



Worth the price of admission alone is a film-within-the-film, a spoof starring Jean-Luc Godard and his then-wife, Anna Karina. "We were close friends. When Luc lived with Anna Karina, we saw each other all the time; we went on holiday as a foursome. He was very clever but great fun too. He'd cut deals with cinema managers: 'If I walk through the lobby on my hands, can I get in free?' Perhaps his films are difficult for the public but he had an incredible reputation then because of the extraordinary success of Breathless."

Varda got funding for Cleo thanks to that, despite her own film's darker side: Cleo's charmed life is threatened by a premonition of mortality as she awaits the result of a medical test. "I thought, 'The thing that impresses me most about Paris is the fear. Parisians are afraid of everything. And the great collective neurosis of that era was cancer. My producer Georges de Beauregard – who had just made Breathless – said, 'OK, but you're allowed to use the word "cancer" once only in the film. And not near the beginning'."

Varda walks with a stick, but her energy is undiminished, like her contemporaries, in fact: Demy and Truffaut died in their fifties, but Chabrol, Rivette, Resnais and Godard are going strong. "They're all over 80 and still shooting. Me too. We're not dead and we're not stupid.

"But I think The Beaches of Agnès will be my last film on 35mm for the regular cinema circuit. Since then, I've turned towards the fine arts – I had a very big exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, for which I could do work that was more unusual. For instance I projected a little film of four or five minutes made purely of primary colours on to an inflatable beach mattress. You're much more at risk in an exhibition because people might or might not look, or just for a few minutes. But those who like what you do there seem to like it a lot. With old age, I've given myself that freedom. Even with this new television series, I'm having fun, creating associations of images and ideas that I wouldn't do quite the same in a normal documentary. I've always loved working and making things up."

At 2.30 sharp, Varda terminates our meeting.. "Talking to you, I've just noticed that this plant is turning towards the sun. I have to move it around now, because one side is suffering. And that will be the end of the interview." Not quite: first, she wants to show me some short films, including a television interview with Madonna, who hoped to star in an American remake of Cleo. By the time I've finished, everyone has vanished. I let myself out, armed with instructions from this tireless organiser on the best shows to see in Paris that afternoon.

'Cléo from 5 to 7' is on release around the country to 9 July (www.bfi.org.uk/releases); the Agnès Varda Retrospective runs at the BFI Southbank, London SE1 until 31 May

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there