Behind the famous Parma façade on rue Daguerre hide the premises of Ciné-Tamaris, formerly Tamaris Films, named after the pretty purple flower, the production company founded by Agnès Varda in 1954 to produce her first film, The Short Tip. Today, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy, the director’s two children, continue to support the family business and try, day after day, to arouse new forms of curiosity and emotion for their parents’ films.
In the middle of heart potatoes, photo archives, film and trophies, Agnès Varda’s daughter told us about her mother, director, photographer and above all free artist.
Konbini | You were a costume designer, then a producer of your mother’s last films. What was it like to be the “government” of Agnès Varda, as she liked to call you?
Rosalie Varda | I quit my job as a costume designer to work with my mother because I wanted to help her restore Jacques Demy’s films. I ended up helping her with everything, I relieved her of the “material” part of her job and I think I was a very good assistant. I was by her side during the last part of her life to allow her to do things that she could not have done alone. I also helped her financially by marketing her photos. Because if my mother was known all over the world, she never made a lot of money. There has always been an incredible paradox between the recognition of his work and the difficulty in producing it.
So “daughter of” is a qualifier that suits you?
I loved working with my mother, it was a determined and happy choice. I have no ego problem. Sometimes we didn’t agree, but the dialogue was always constructive. We laughed a lot, traveled and shared. In the middle of a work session, she could throw me “let’s heat up the credit card”. She had this admirable ability to take pleasure where he was.
“There has always been an incredible paradox between the recognition of his work and the difficulty in producing it”
Do you continue to make discoveries about your mother through her photographic archives?
Yes every day. Agnès earned her living as a photographer for ten years, from the 1950s to the 1960s. At first, she photographed weddings or Santa Clauses at the Galeries Lafayette, then she was the official photographer of the Théâtre national populaire Jean Vilar. She also photographed her artist friends, Alexander Calder, Germaine Richier, Valentine Schlegel, Pierre Székely and many young actors and actresses. We have about 27,000 negatives of his photos and I only know of a third of them. If I had to sum up my mother, I would say that she was curious, emphatic, demanding, with a joyful and collaborative feminism. She wasn’t an intellectual, she wasn’t into the concept, she was a humanist.
“Filming was his way of writing and his camera was his pen, the extension of his eye”
In the collective imagination, fiction would be more noble, but Agnès Varda has alternated between feature films, documentaries and short films throughout her career…
She started going to the cinema with Jacques Demy and the band of Cinema notebooks in 1958. When she made her first feature film, in 1954, she had only seen six or seven films, and when she arrived in the United States in 1967, she did not speak a word of English but she made a documentary about the Black Panthers. His freedom of spirit was to make the subject prevail.
But when she bought her first digital camera at the end of the 1990s, she only made documentaries, in which she told herself, of course, but which remained documentaries. She liked this freedom and the reduced teams offered by digital technology. Then, she has always filmed outside of her films, her work of digital images is gigantic.
Where did this need come from to film everything, to photograph everything and to see everything through images?
Filming was his way of writing and his camera was his pen, an extension of his eye. But I don’t think she wanted to document everything, she didn’t have this need to archive her life.
“In her films, she tackled social issues in a very contemporary way and asked herself questions to which she did not have the answer”
How do you explain that most of his films did not work in theaters, with the exception of No shelter, no law, which has exceeded one million admissions, but that it still and always enjoys such affection from the public?
Agnès has crossed the century with technology. She started with a darkroom and ended up with the iPhone. His curiosity was his modernity. By presenting many retrospectives of her work around the world, I realize how close she is to the younger generations who recognize themselves in her. It’s as if there was a filiation and that she was a kind of great aunt who does not judge them.
In the later part of her life, she questioned herself a lot and made a lot of fun out of herself with all those funny little cartoons, which is quite unusual for an old lady. She became this little character with a vanilla-strawberry hairstyle that allowed her to be easily identified by younger generations. She was a bit unworthy and politically incorrect at times, but that wasn’t a life premise, it was more of a mark she left.
Why was there this discrepancy between her public persona as a nice little colorful lady and the very dark themes of her films, death, suicide, illness, abortion?
“I don’t accept certain stupid patterns and I have fun observing cultural mores”, she liked to say. In her films, she tackled social issues in a very contemporary way and asked questions to which she did not have the answer. In Happiness, banned for those under 18 at the time of its release, she wondered if you can really love two women at the same time. In One sings, the other doesn’t, she assumed to say that a woman can abandon her child to her father, it was very cheeky for the time and it still is. This film is incredibly modern, there is this sorority which is very beautiful.
“I don’t have a favorite Agnès Varda film, because it’s a bit like having lots of children”
What memories do you have of the production of his ultimate documentary, Varda by Agneswhich she imagined as her farewell to the cinema?
This last documentary was a kind of lesson in cinema, even if I don’t like the term lesson because it implies judgment. We wanted her to talk about her cinema during her lifetime, because if people make and will make documentaries about her, she had to give us the keys herself to understand her cine-writing. We shot Varda by Agnes at a time when she was very sick, she was very brave to go all the way and present it at the Berlinale in 2019. I remember a big party, where everyone drank a lot, except her who didn’t drink.
At the end of her life, she knew she was going to die of lung cancer, but she still had a real energy that won our respect. I loved his simplicity so much despite his huge career. She is the only woman to have won the three major film awards, the César d’honneur, the Palme d’honneur and the Oscar d’honneur. And I hope she will have others posthumously.
What was his relationship to these awards?
When we got back from the States after the Oscars, she put her statuette in her carry-on. When the border guards understood why his bag was ringing, we all laughed a lot. Of course, she was honored to receive these awards, but she always took the opportunity to make very committed speeches. Because throughout her career, she struggled to find funding to produce her films. When she received the Legion of Honor, she sent a fax to the Ministry of Culture where she had written “exchange of decorations for money”. She wanted less honor and more money. And they gave him money!
“We have about 27,000 negatives of his photos and I only know a third of them”
She didn’t like this label of “New Wave director” either?
She made her first film, The Short Tip, in 1954 and the term “New Wave” was coined much later by an American critic. She was the forerunner of a cinematographic movement initiated by apprentice filmmakers, critics to Cinema notebooks who saw four films a day at the Cinémathèque. Agnes was not really part of this gang. But thanks to her freedom of tone, she was never where we expected her to be and she created her own very personal cinematographic corpus. “I like reverie better than psychology, I like jumping from rooster to donkey, having fun with chance, moments of emotion, furtive moments, things that pass”, she said.
Do you have a favorite Agnès Varda film?
It’s difficult to answer this question, because it’s a bit like having lots of children. For a while, I have to take more care of one film, then I move on to another because we’ve kind of forgotten about it. And then, I was brought up with these films and I don’t perceive them in the same way depending on my age. They also remind me of very specific moments in my life and certain emotions they provoked in me.
“Thanks to her freedom of tone, she was never where we expected her to be and she created her own very personal cinematographic corpus”
You have also acted in his films. Are any of them linked to particularly happy filming memories?
I never wanted to be an actress. I hated being in front of the camera. But unfortunately, we couldn’t resist Agnès, her humor, her intelligence and her authority…
Would she be happy to see her movies on Netflix today?
I don’t like to speak in her place, but I, Rosalie Varda, am very happy that our films are present on all possible media. Today, to say that heritage films, a very pompous term that I don’t like very much, must be seen in cinemas, is not the reality. We want the younger generations to be interested in films and if we have to look for them on Netflix, we go there. They have to be everywhere because it’s also through choice that we see a film and we mustn’t go against technology. Anyway, a good film remains a good film and the transmission of good films is the heart of our activity at Ciné-Tamaris.
Agnès Varda’s photos will be exhibited from January 14 to March 5, 2022 at the Galerie Nathalie Obadia, rue Charles Decoster 8 in Brussels, as part of the exhibition “Calder, Richier, Schlegel, Székely by Agnès Varda”.
Interview conducted with Louis Lepron.