Far removed from the glitz and glamour of a Hollywood-style celebrity interview, legendary film director Agnès Varda relaxes comfortably in a large garden in the west of Paris to talk about her masterpiece Cléo de 5 à 7 at an event to launch a remastered version of the film sponsored by luxury goods firm, LVMH. At 86-years-of-age, Varda radiates an energy which she laughingly puts down to the two glasses of hot water she drinks every morning, but is clearly the product of a passion she still holds for cinema and the visual arts.
Varda started her career as a photographer at the Theatre National Populaire under Jean Vilar before directing her first feature film, La Pointe Courte, in 1954 followed eight years later by Cléo de 5 à 7 Dubbed the ‘Godmother’ of the French New Wave, she belonged more to the Left Bank cinema movement along with Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Chris Marker. With La Pointe Courte, set in a fishing village in Sète, she became the first woman in French film history to direct a full-length film entirely on her own, although she had no directing experience and confessed to previously having seen only a handful of films.
Varda no longer directs feature films and has moved into videos and art installations, but she reminisces fondly about her years as a film and documentary maker and firmly believes her early work is still relevant. “There is a reality and there is cinema and I try to reinvent reality and give it a cinematic form,” she explains. “I look for a way to express subjects which are important to me and society. I want to create something that can be shared, which crosses generations.” She is the first to accept her films are not ‘blockbusters’ and attract relatively small audiences. “Mine is a kind of career on the sidelines,” she admits, “I am the Queen of the Fringe.”
After it was first screened in 1962, Cléo de 5 à 7 was selected for competition at the Cannes Film Festival and fifty years later was again chosen in a restored version for the Cannes Classic section. The film tells the story of a young Parisian pop-singer (Corinne Marchand) who is waiting for the results of a biopsy for cancer. The results are due at 7 o’clock in the evening and from 5pm to 7pm, the audience follows Cléo as she contemplates her own death and readjusts her attitude towards friendship, life and love. It’s shot in real time with the actual time of the story corresponding to the timeline of the film and the camera never leaves Cléo as she meets friends, rehearses with her musicians or wanders the streets of Paris.
Looking at it now, it is a fascinating visual record of Paris in the early 1960s and deals with themes close to Varda’s heart such as eroticism and age, death and time. And there are a couple of surprising cameo roles including Jean Luc Godard as The Man in the Black Sunglasses and Michel Leblanc as one of Cléo s musicians. Leblanc, a French conductor, composer and pianist, later went on to carve out a successful career in Hollywood winning an Oscar in 1969 for the song The Windmills of Your Mind from the film, The Thomas Crown Affair.
Varda says she wanted to make a film about an illness that people were just starting to talk about at the time and to reflect on the idea of beauty and death and the death of beauty. “I wanted to make people feel the passage of time which is why I decided to make the film in real time,” she says. “It’s not an action film where extraordinary things happen. I wanted to get across the feeling that in difficult times, a conversation or a precious moment can occur and change one’s perspective.”
Shot in black and white with Varda’s trademark jump cuts and a soundtrack that captures secondary character’s conversations, its appeal to a younger generation of filmgoers is not obvious. This is not the case says Varda. “Young people adore Cléo and I receive at least one letter every day from someone who says they like the way the film has accompanied their lives,” she explains. “They have seen the film regularly and may also have heard about it from their mothers or people who studied the film at university.”
While Cléo de 5 à 7 is a clear reflection of life in the early 60s, some of Varda’s other films were definitely ahead of their time. The documentary Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) shot in 2000 is a look at a wasteful society which sees people scavenging for food thoughtlessly thrown away by others, pre-empting by a good few years today’s concern over the environment and the need for recycling. And Sans Toi, Ni Loi (Vagabond) , starring a 17-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire, is the story of a young woman who lives on the streets and is eventually found lying dead in a ditch. When the film was first screened in1985, says Varda, the problem of homeless people was not talked about and finding a homeless women on the street was even more rare.
It’s a sign of the affection Varda inspires in her actors that Bonnaire was at the screening to pay moving tribute to the woman she said had changed her life. “You know there are films I am very proud of, but Vagabond is an exception… it brought me into existence and made me grow up.”
The partnership between LVMH, one of the world’s biggest luxury goods companies, and a film director highly regarded for her searing social commentary may raise a few eyebrows. Yet Varda is unstinting in her praise for the company which last year also restored one of her late husband Jacques Demy’s classic films, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. “We are lucky in France that the idea of preserving our heritage is important,” she says. “And we have found the assistance we needed in this family with such acute artistic taste … which understands our desire to share these old films with those who want to see them.”
But she’s still capable of throwing out the odd barb or two. After a flattering speech by Pierre Godé vice president of LVMH, Varda took the microphone: “I was thinking just before, when you paid me those extraordinary compliments, about the fishermen of Sète. They said a phrase I adore when people used to say to them La Pointe Courte, it’s very pretty, it’s very beautiful. They used to say ‘a bit less thanks and a bit more money’.”
Here is the full interview with Agnès Varda courtesy of lesnuitsduchasseurdefilms.com