The 2008 Toronto International Film Festival last September proved hospitable to Agnès Varda, offering her latest work, the autobiographical The Beaches ofAgnès, and reaching back for a rare screening of her 1954 first feature, La Pointe Courte. The "Mother of the French New Wave" was in an expansive, agreeable mood, and one afternoon she consented to sit down in a hotel room amid quickly gathered journalists and just reminisce. She kicked off her shoes, we took notes, and she spoke fervently of her 80 years on earth, 54 of them doing cinema: personal, left-political, feminist, subtly experimental.
"In France," she said, "I started as a photographer and took pictures of Picasso, but I was very shy to ask to go to his studio. I was educated stupidly. I knew nothing of nothing, which also makes you shy. I was scared of men. But I went to Germany to take photos in 1946; I photographed alone in China. I was kind of courageous, thinking I shouldn't do less than my brothers."
In the early 1950s, Varda's ambitions expanded from photography to filmmaking, though all the French directors were male. "I realized you didn't have to be strong like a carpenter. A director doesn't have to do anything but direct actors. Why couldn't I do that? But I didn't want to make a career, make a deal, adapt a beautiful book. Most film followed the path of theater, with rich dialogue, classic form, perfect sense. I wanted to use cinema as a language, like with Joyce and Woolf and Nathalie Sarraute. In 1962, I made Cléo from 5 to 7, [which was] shocking to the perceptions of viewers, showing subjective time versus objective time."
"I admire those who now go to film school," she added. "Because at first I was a total autodidact." Fortunately, with La Pointe Courte, Varda wandered into the sphere of two great talents of the "Left Bank School," Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. "They're so very bright! They taught me many things. Resnais, who edited La Pointe Courte, said, 'Your film reminds me of Visconti.' I said, 'Who is Visconti?' They said, 'See lots of films. There's a Cinemathèque here in Paris. See Vampyr and Ordet by Dreyer, go see Bresson.' When I met Jacquot [Jacques Demy] in 1957, he'd seen Bresson's Pickpocket three times. We went to see it four more times." Thus began her romance with the genial filmmaker of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, whom she married.
Demy died of AIDS complications in 1990, and Varda has told of his life twice on film, in Jacquot de Nantes (1991) and in The Beaches of Agnès, which is more directly about AIDS.
"The life of a couple is very fragile. We had ups and downs, and we recovered from some downs. Losing Jacques, he was 59, it's not like losing someone [who's] 12, and then I think of the millions with AIDS in Africa, and female circumcision everywhere. Still, filming Les plages, I had to go back to the pain of feeling his death, to a time when AIDS was always a death sentence. And in the editing, I had to go back again to that. But I decided it should be peacefully told. The world is in very bad shape, but cinema in a way is a peaceful life.