Festival Daily

Agnès and I

By Ghita Loebenstein

Talking to Agnès Varda is like being in one of her films. We meet on the patio of l’Espresso Bar Mercurio where uniFrance is hosting a luncheon for its French filmmakers and their cohorts. Olivier Assayas is deep in conversation with Piers Handling. Mabrouk El Mechri, the young director of buzz-title JCVD is surrounded by a throng of beautiful women. The Dardenne brothers have just left. We find a table in the corner. A life-sized statue of a gold lion sits beside us, peering over the conversation, and Varda begins to talk, as if she is in mid-thought. “We premiered at the Venice Film Festival a week ago. It was exciting because I got a standing ovation and a lot of love around the film. So I felt so relieved, even though I will work a little more on the editing. I got laughter and some people cried, and I love that. We want them to cry with me a little.”

Varda, one of the pre-eminent French New Wave filmmakers, is at the Festival presenting her new film, Les Plages d’Agnès, and fans, filmmakers and French ambassadors want to shake her hand. People float up to the table and become part of the conversation. A woman who recently gave Varda a necklace approaches. “It was so shiny,” says Varda, referring to the jewellery. “You are shiny! You are a diamond!” replies the woman. “Oh, but it is my soul that shines,” says Varda in return, laughing. The filmmaker apologizes for the interruption, but as she shows in her films, the distractions carry us in fruitful directions. “I allow myself to be free. I think we should allow ourselves to be [distracted],” she says.

Les Plages d’Agnès is an autobiography anchored around the beaches that have staged pivotal moments in Varda’s life. She turned 80 earlier this year – impossible to believe because she doesn’t look older than 60. She is petite and has a newly died halo of rouge through her silver hair. She’s unsure if she likes it, but the halo is like an accent on her vital, pixie-like demeanour.

“You have seen the Gleaners, maybe?” she asks me. I have. Varda’s The Gleaners and I (TIFF 2000) was not only a quixotic meditation on recycling but an accidental self-portrait, a gentle gleaning of her own life. In Les Plages d’ Agnès, she extends this self-portrait, casting her eye back over the greater part of her life: her films, her photography, her children, her art and her life with Jacques Demy.

The Gleaners is a subject bigger than me. It’s related to waste, society, consuming and all that. So in a way, when a subject is bigger than you, you feel at ease. This is just about me. That’s a big subject. Like a traveller. It’s the path that I followed. Would you like to know how I went through my years?

“I started it because I turned 80 and thought I should do something for people for when I die. People should know a little about my youth, about how I started, what I discovered and how I was madly in love. It’s a love story, but it ends in tears because Jacques died, but we had time to live together and age together and so I’m happy. I’m working much more now because I’m alone.”

As much as The Gleaners seemed like accidental self-discovery, Les Plages, she says, was pure storytelling. “I put all my work together through the computer, and I took things from here and there, so you have excerpts of my films, excerpts of my art and photography. It’s a collage. You’re with me, but I speak about other things. I start the film by saying, ‘This is a little old lady, telling her life story, but what interests me the most is the other.’ That’s the statement. I’m making a portrait, but I’m escaping the portrait as much as I can.”