A Filmmaker's Joy: An Interview with Agnès Varda

In an interview by "Fireflies" magazine, Agnès Varda discusses her first film, her movies' politics, women's rights, and personal cinema.
Giovanni Marchini Camia

This interview was originally published in Fireflies #5. Many thanks to the author and the publication for allowing us to run it online.

By going to Paris to interview Agnès Varda I lived two dreams shared by many a cinephile: I met and spent a couple of hours with the filmmaking legend, and I visited a place that ranks high amongst cinema’s most fabled locations: the house at 86-88 rue Daguerre. Walking over from the métro, it was difficult to get my bearings based on Varda’s 1976 documentary Daguerréotypes. In lieu of the film’s charmingly scruffy artisanal shops and family-owned businesses I found snazzy boutiques, restaurants and cafés. Where the butcher used to be, there is now a yoga studio. Though hardly surprising, it was still heart-breaking to ascertain that gentrification had done away with the village-like microcosm immortalised by Varda.

My disenchantment evaporated once I spotted a familiar sight: the house Varda has owned and lived in since 1951, its magenta façade and pink window shutters cheerfully disrupting the tonal uniformity of the street. I rang the doorbell next to the tricoloured door with the large letterbox that I knew from The Beaches of Agnès (2008) and was greeted by Louise, one of the employees of Varda’s production company Ciné-Tamaris, whose offices are on the ground floor. She led me down the long, narrow courtyard overflowing with plants and flowers – on a windowsill, I spotted the handless clock from The Gleaners and I (2000) – through to the open space at the back, where Varda was having tea with the rest of the team. It was like walking into one of the countless photographs I’d seen of her sitting in that same spot, both alone and in the company of others: Jacques Demy, Jane Birkin, Guillaume-en-Égypte… As if the experience weren’t ticking enough boxes already, when I reached the table and pulled out a chair, I found a cat sleeping on it.

I’ve prepared some questions. [Pulls out notes

Mon Dieu! Time to get to work.  

You made your debut feature, La Pointe Courte [1955], without cinematic training and having only seen a few films. At the same time, you were passionate about painting and literature, and you worked as a photographer at the theatre. Was your engagement with these other art forms your film school, so to speak?

I was a photographer and I wanted more, so I went to cinema. It’s true that I didn’t have any training: I had never been a director’s assistant, I had never attended a film school… At 25 I had maybe seen eight or ten films, not more. I was raised in a family that didn’t go to the cinema. I went to the theatre a lot, I went to the museum a lot. As such, I wrote the film here, on a table in this courtyard, in 1953. I wrote it a little like a poem that you then hide in a drawer: a reverie of a film.

I had spent all my summers in Sète [where the neighbourhood of La Pointe Courte is located] with my family. We had been refugees there during the war, and later we returned every summer. It’s funny that we’re talking about this today as I was in La Pointe Courte just two days ago. Imagine, there aren’t many people left from 1954. I’m good friends with [André] Lubrano, whom I filmed when he was a little boy. He’s the one who’s told, “Go warn grandpa. Take your grapes!” Now he’s 75 and he’s the most robust of those who can still remember the shoot. Otherwise, all those who come greet me, they’re the nephew of the one who pulled the boat, the cousin of the one who lent me a fishing net, the grandson of the one who lent me his house… And it’s a pleasure to go back, even if there’s six times less fishermen now.

Things have changed a lot, but it’s revitalising to visit the neighbourhood. It reminds me of my enthusiasm, of doing things in a sort of rage of spontaneity. There’s a famous picture of me on my knees in front of the camera; it was taken on the first day of my first film. I had started with something very difficult. My assistant, Carlo Vilardebó, wanted to start with some easy shots, but I said, “Let’s start with a very difficult scene!” So we began with the scene where the camera goes into the poor people’s home when they’re eating around the table. The camera moves past them, into the next room with the sick child inside a cot made out of a box, then keeps moving forward and finally goes out the back, reaching the other end of the Pointe. It was difficult to set up. I was happy to start with this shot because when it was done I told myself, ‘Voilà, now I’m a filmmaker!’

That’s what I thought, even though I had no training, no clue. But I was searching for things. I remember this shot in which a man, his name was Raphaël – he’s dead now, unfortunately – is walking and holding a child by the hand. The rhythm of the big steps and the small steps is a little like jazz, where you have three-four time. That’s the kind of things I was thinking about. In my head I had ideas about framings, about paintings, about rhythms. There’s the famous frontal/profile portrait of Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort, which is obviously stolen from Picasso. I wanted to do a frontal/profile portrait in cinema and I was certain I could.

The film’s construction was influenced by Faulkner’s The Wild Palms. The book’s structure [which alternates between two storylines that never intersect] is unsettling and provokes something complicated in the reading. We have to believe in osmosis. I think the layers of our brain can function like this as well. It’s possible to register two ideas simultaneously. They’re not the same, but they go together. I don’t know why this daring, audacious construction was so miraculous for me, but I told myself, ‘If one can dare this in literature, then one should dare this in cinema as well!’

When Alain Resnais edited the film, he told me, “You don’t know cinema? There’s a cinematheque…” I had no idea. The first film he suggested I go see was Vampyr [1932] by Dreyer, which was shown with the Dreyer short They Caught the Ferry [1948]. It was my baptism as a cinephile.

I’m telling you all this because the day before yesterday I was back at La Pointe Courte and I realised how powerful it had been for me that a place and its people should inspire me to reinvent reality with real people whom I’ve known and who impressed me.

And in my latest film – have you seen the film I made with JR?

Faces, Places [2017]? Yes, I just saw it at Cannes. 

At Cannes! Well then you saw that it’s still about real people. We put them in the spotlight, but they inspired us. The things they say are so wonderful, so interesting.

Really, I started doing this in 1954. By contrast, in La Pointe Courte, I wanted the couple’s dialogues to be theatrical and psychological. Highly mannered, not spontaneous. Poor Philippe Noiret was sad because he had never acted in a film and he hoped to show off his temperament, which he did later, since he had a terrific career. I told him, “No, it must be like a Japanese Noh, you must do nothing. The worst sign of sadness is to do this.” [Raises her hand in front of her eyes] That’s how it is in Noh: you raise your hand in front of your face, your eyes, and that expresses the most extreme despair. How Noiret suffered! Later he was very happy, but at the time he suffered.

So, if you like, that’s what interested me. Not to make cinema in order to illustrate a play, a novel, or someone’s script – I wanted to be in the substance of cinema. I had ideas which were quite radical, if I may say so myself.  

A distinguishing feature of your films is the warmth they exude towards the people in them – this is true of both your fictions and your documentaries. Could you make a film about people you dislike? 

I never made a film in a milieu that didn’t interest me. I never made films about the bourgeoisie, about heads of industry, bankers… It’s not even that I dislike them, but they don’t interest me. [Claude] Chabrol critiqued the bourgeoisie extremely well. He always navigated the torments, the flaws and the qualities of the bourgeoisie. But they don’t come up in any of my films.

I’m attracted by people who are out of place, people without power. I find them very interesting because by filming them, you give them… not power, but the dignity of inventing their own words.

Not always – when I made La Pointe Courte, I had written all the fishermen’s dialogues. I prepared them with the fishermen, but they were written. When I made Vagabond [1985], which looks like a documentary but isn’t one at all, it’s one hundred per cent fictional, I wrote all the testimonies. The people giving them do so in their voice, their clothes, their vernacular, and it seems very real. When the mechanic speaks, or the builder, it doesn’t seem like they learned their lines, but they were scripted. Everyone’s always very surprised by that.

To prepare Vagabond, I drove around by myself a lot, picking up boys and girls who were hitchhiking. I spent at least a month trying to find the places where they went, where they slept. I’d go to train stations at night, stay very late – you know, when it’s winter, they’re cold, so you wait and then, come 2am, they start talking, because they’re bored, or…

What struck me is that you can’t help them. It’s complicated. For example, once I gave this girl a ride. We stopped and I told her, “Come on, let’s go eat at the restaurant.” We go into the restaurant and the guy comes over and says, “She’s too dirty.” He didn’t want to let her eat, not even if we paid. I realised that the barrier separating the rich from the poor is the smell, the filth.

I would go into squats with my team and I’d tell them, “Just as one breaks the sound barrier, you have to break the smell barrier. We will be in a place that stinks. It smells of wine, of pee, of poo…” They live in it and we have to understand that for them, it has no importance. We have to get rid of the very expression “they’re dirty”.

Another time I brought a girl home, here. I offered her a room and a shower. I saw her the next day and she hadn’t showered. Showering is not a basic desire. What you learn when you work with real people is that our value system needs changing. It’s not a merit to be clean, it’s just one way of living. This anti-merit, which is filth, is a means of separating people. These were things that gave me a lot to think about while making Vagabond. I’ve never filmed the rich or powerful. They’re fine, there’s plenty of films to be made about them, but they don’t interest me.  

The people who do interest you often don’t belong to your social reality. I’m not only thinking about the homeless, but also of the black and Latino communities in the United States, for example. As a filmmaker, how do you avoid voyeurism and exoticism?

I speak to them. For example, when I was shooting The Gleaners and I, I would tell them, “Okay, you live in a trailer with your water supply at the other end of the field; I have a bathroom and a bed. My job is to make documentaries and try to give an account of different lives, of different ways of thinking. Since you think, I would like you to express yourselves.” Of course, I don’t say it like that. But often in cinema farmers speak farmer, workers speak worker, the poor speak poor. This needs to be stopped. Some gleaners said things about society that were very interesting, worthy of a sociologist. They shouldn’t be confined to their jobs or categories.

Then the problem is that we go to a festival and people really like the film, we are applauded, and we’re forced to say, “Well, you’re applauding the people we filmed.” With JR, we now say, “We are passeurs [intermediaries]. We can’t take them with us – the worker, the farmer – but we’ve come to represent them.” Except, because we’re in showbiz, we act like clowns, we crack jokes… How well do you know French cinema? Do you know La grande vadrouille [1966]? 

Yes, the comedy with Louis de Funès. I loved it when I was little.

JR likes to say I’m the grande vardouille. Although, it’s actually Louis Garrel who came up with that. It’s a good one. JR and I, we never stop saying idiocies, because we’re happy filmmakers. But it’s true that in our work we’ve loved people and we’ve given them this little power which is the possibility to be themselves, to be loved, listened to, and to want to tell us things. That woman who fights so hard for goats [not to be dehorned], did you see how passionate she was? She spoke so well! She makes a perfectly clear and coherent argument – about goat horns! That’s what we like, JR and I.

We belong to the same family of filmmakers – and there are others, too – who think real people are interesting and can teach us things, enrich our lives. I learn from these people. I’m touched by the fact that they have things to say. I was absolutely moved by the man who is retiring [in Faces, Places]. And what he said brought in a social discourse. Retirement is one of the big debates in France right now: how long must people work? How much will they receive? Will there be hardship distributions? And so forth. Then there’s the other reality, the other side of retirement: here’s a man who worked his whole life in a factory, doing difficult work, and it’s his last day. He puts on his nice suit and comes to have a drink with his friends. Then he looks at us and calmly says, “I feel like I’m on the edge of a cliff and that I’m going to fall.” For me, that was so awful. At the same time, it’s so beautiful that he has an attitude which allows him to say something like that.

What interested me was the hidden thematic thread [that developed from this discussion]: there’s the guy who says he’s going to fall off a cliff. Years ago, I photographed a goat that had fallen off a cliff; JR and I went [to Sainte-Marguerite-sur-Mer] to see a bunker from the war that had fallen off a cliff; and we spoke to the mayor, who said a little calf had also fallen off that cliff. It was incredible, because we didn’t set this up, but all of a sudden the cliff and those who fall off it became an inner, hidden thread.

This way that real people have of speaking stimulates the imagination. They, too, have their own imagination. They speak and I feel that they open up… it’s like the sound of a gong, which travels into the distance and gives off interesting resonances – about people, about ourselves. It teaches us something, it makes us a little more sensitive to what others say, and therefore a little more capable of listening.

As with the topic of retirement, you always integrate current events and debates into your films. Is this just your personal inclination, or do you also feel that it’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to engage with present realities?

I don’t think that I make political cinema at all, but if you look at my films, I do speak of things that are happening. It’s true that I filmed the Black Panthers [in Black Panthers, 1968] when they were powerful, which they weren’t for long, and I did so because I wanted to bear witness to that moment. It also struck me that their rise was simultaneous to the emergence of women’s studies; for the first time, women were entering the discourse. There were men, philosophers such as Hegel, John Stuart Mill and August Bebel, who had written, if I dare say so, for women. In the 1960s, women’s studies started: women theorised about women. It was the same with the black community: it had always been white people writing theories about black people and now there were [Stokely] Carmichael, [Eldridge] Cleaver, Bobby Seale… It was the first time they wrote their own texts about their projects and their programme.

That struck me and I told myself, ‘It’s interesting, these people who are awakening…’ These people who didn’t have the right to vote – women couldn’t vote, blacks couldn’t vote – there was a parallel in my mind. I wanted to bear witness, so I attended many demonstrations. I also bore witness to the start of the revolution in China [in 1957], which was wonderful and interesting. I went to Cuba [in 1962] when the revolution was starting there. When something was happening, something truly new and exciting, I would go. I was in my time. My films didn’t push a political opinion, but they were there.

I especially followed the history of the women’s struggle in France. Just the other day, we buried Simone Veil. She will be remembered for getting abortion legalised – for medical reasons; she didn’t even dare say it was for women’s freedom. And yet, that ruling was the result of ten years of fighting, marching, suffering. I made a film about this, One Sings and the Other Doesn’t [1977]. I was in this struggle. It’s not even being political anymore, it’s being a woman together with other women and the suffering that we experienced, that we witnessed, and that we sometimes tried to prevent.

There are people who make great engaged cinema. JR puts it nicely: he says that we’re not engaged, we’re engaging. He means that we want to participate and do so with good humour. But I was never a member of any party. I never signed up – not with the Communists, nor with the Socialists – but I supported all those on the Left that I could support. And I did sign the famous “Manifesto of the 343” [in 1971]. It was a matter of justice. Those poor young women were going to prison, those who couldn’t go to Switzerland or England to get abortions. Famous women signed and it was to say, “We have aborted, put us on trial!” Of course, they didn’t put us on trial – not Catherine Deneuve, nor Delphine Seyrig, nor Françoise Sagan, nor myself. It wasn’t even about abortion: it was about the fact that justice was disgusting towards the poor.

There was a famous trial in Bobigny [in 1972] against this poor little girl – she was maybe sixteen years old – who had aborted with the help of her mother because she absolutely couldn’t keep her child. She had been brought to trial by the guy who had made the child, who didn’t want her to have the right to choose. We all went there. There were hundreds of women. There were barriers, we were screaming… I was eight months pregnant with Mathieu at the time, I was huge. I remember we were being pushed against the barriers. I was with Delphine Seyrig and she said, “Give birth! We’ll make the front page!” I laughed so much.

We were fighting for the feminist cause. Simone de Beauvoir pushed forward, legally, and all of a sudden we were granted the right – but how we had to fight for it! It was a true battle. You see, it’s not being political, it’s living the fact that what was happening to women was horrible. Today, we forget that many women fought for this. But the right to contraception, to the pill, to other things – these rights didn’t exist! My mother came from a family of twelve children; Sandrine Bonnaire from a family of nine children… What time was left to the mothers? Could they have found the time to think, to look at flowers, to go to the museum? I doubt it.

And now we live in a moment where every day we think about these boats, full of migrants, which make it or don’t make it across. I was talking about people falling off a cliff – every day I think about people falling off these boats. They harbour a dream that is senseless! They’ve been told things would be better, and then they’re not allowed to stay, they don’t have papers… I constantly have this awful vision of people walking, people falling into the water. We can’t, all us filmmakers, start making films about those who swim to save themselves but don’t make it. We can think about them, but we’re not obliged to talk about it or make films about it.

When you do address injustice in your films, you usually find a connection to your personal life. Already in one of your earliest shorts, L’Opéra Mouffe [1958], you took images of the poor on rue Mouffetard to explore your experience of being pregnant.  

In rue Mouffetard, there, too, I fell in love with these people, old and abandoned. I was pregnant and I would watch them, thinking to myself, ‘But they were once little babies. Someone caressed their bellies; someone said, “Oh, he’s adorable!”’ When you’re pregnant you think your child will be beautiful, in good health, happy. You can’t imagine anything else! You can’t tell yourself, ‘I’ll bring a miserable wretch into this world.’

It’s terrible, because if you start thinking about the fragility of children, you project this onto old people who limp, who are drunk… There are these people in L’Opéra Mouffe who are sitting at the bistro and staring ahead with vacant eyes. You can tell they’re lost, at the end of the world, all alone… I don’t even know if they’re miserable, but there’s a sort of anguish in their gaze, an anguish of nothingness. You can’t help but be affected by that. In your personal life, you project how you look at others.

All this answers your question: I don’t think I make political cinema. I think that in my life I’ve cast a certain gaze on others, which is a way of being with others.

You also integrated many other chapters of your life into your work, including painful ones. When Jacques Demy died, you shot a biographical film about him, Jacquot de Nantes [1991]. What role did making this film play in your mourning? 

When I started making Jacquot de Nantes, Jacques was still alive. He had written an account of his childhood. Every other evening, he would read me chapters. I told him it would make a fantastic script and he said, “Don’t you want to film it? I don’t have the strength.” It’s true that he was very tired.

While still alive, he witnessed the shoot of a film about his childhood. I can’t help but say that it made him happy. He was living with a painful illness, because he was condemned, he knew it – at the time, they didn’t treat AIDS like today – but he was able to engage with something that he loved: his own childhood. So I had the impression that it was important for him, and for me, to make this film. We finished the shoot and he died fifteen days later. It was very odd, very organic, as if he’d accompanied the shoot without having been able to make the film himself. Later, I spoke about his death more, and in The Beaches of Agnès I let Jacques’ absence pass, like this, softly. I speak about him, his illness, of everything we didn’t speak about at the time of his death. Because there had been this sort of omertà that he himself had instated, if I can put it that way.

It’s true that Jacques’ death became inscribed into life by way of cinema, because Jacquot de Nantes is cinema, after all. It’s in black and white for the representation of the 1940s and has flashes of colour that are scenes from his life that, I supposed, had inspired scenes in his films. I pretended to be a film student preparing a thesis: “The Inspiration for the Films of Jacques Demy”. I inserted excerpts from his films, which were drawn from his childhood, because he was primarily inspired by his childhood, his adolescence, the things that surrounded him. It’s remarkable. He wasn’t curious about other things. Everything he told had a very definite origin in the little world in which he’d lived. He had an aunt who gambled, so he made a film about gambling [Bay of Angels, 1963]. It was always like that with him. Cinephiles can trace such things back through my film.

And then there was the fact that he was still there and that gave the film a third dimension: he’s still present; he speaks a little; I film his hands, his skin, his face… It’s a complex film and one I like a lot, because I feel I really managed to construct what I wanted, using the pain that the film represents.

The split I experienced as a result was extraordinary. When Jacques died, I was starting the edit with my editor, Marie-Josée Audiard. There were moments where we’d see shots of Jacques. I would weep and at the same time I’d say, “No, two frames less. The sound should start a little earlier.” I’d never known that you can be two people at once. One half of me was consciously working, very precisely as I always am while editing, and the other half was crying. We had decided that we wouldn’t talk about it: I would dry my tears and we’d continue.

In making the film, we were constructing our mourning. We were broken, the children and I. We were horribly sad. Many people loved Jacques; there were many tributes and the more people told us they loved him, the more it hurt. At the same time, I was gratified by the edit. This gratification is real, of finding the right cut, of making it better. It’s there that I always say cinécriture exists. I never gave up on the idea that one must construct: construct the edit, construct the narrative, offer emotional avenues, always include little breaches. I find it interesting. It really is a wonderful profession.  

You also cast your children in your films, particularly Mathieu, who plays one of the main characters in both Documenteur [1981] and Kung-Fu Master [1988], and also appears in several others. Did this help you get closer to him, understand him better?

I would say no. It’s actually a rather dishonest move that all filmmakers make, to cast their children and not ask their opinion. They’re there, we find them beautiful, we find them great, so we cast them in our films.

I’ve had an interesting experience with this, having cast Mathieu in Documenteur when he was nine years old. I had a wonderful editor, Sabine Mamou, with whom I’d edited Mur Murs. When I wrote Documenteur, it was about a French woman and her child, and eventually I thought, “Why not ask Sabine? She’s intelligent, she’s beautiful, it’s not a difficult role… And why not also ask Mathieu, whom she loves?” The casting was completely domestic, as we were living together: she had a room, Mathieu had a room, I had a room. It’s one of my favourite films of mine.

And then, dear Mathieu becomes an adult, becomes an actor, becomes a director. Have you seen his film, Americano [2011]?

Unfortunately not. 

You have to, it’s a terrific film about identity. When I read the script I had a shock, because it starts like this: the phone rings, Martin [Mathieu’s character] wakes up in bed with his wife, he picks up the phone, and then says, “Fuck, my mother died!” His mother is in Los Angeles and he has to go pick up her body for the funeral. When he arrives in Los Angeles he has flashbacks from his youth and those flashbacks existed already: he took them from Documenteur. He drew scenes from Documenteur that allowed him to have memories in his own fiction. For me it was clear that he was reappropriating scenes that had been taken from him as a child.

It’s interesting, because perhaps many child actors have this feeling, of having been put into a film that wasn’t theirs. Mathieu reclaimed his experience, cinematically. But that’s the work we’re doing with JR: to give people their own images ­– if they accept that we paste them on a wall. We offer them the chance to reflect on their own image. Now selfies are all the rage. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Before, there were professional photographers, then there were these small cameras, and now it’s, “Hop – selfie!” The history of the self-portrait, whether professional or spontaneous, is very important.

For Mathieu, it was the notion that I had filmed him without asking him. It’s not even asking his permission. I probably said, “Do you want to be in this film?” When you’re nine, I don’t think you have the authority to say no. It’s not that he was unhappy, either. We’d say, “Action!” and he’d look like a kid who had cried all night, then we’d cut and off he’d go again on his scooter. All child actors are extraordinary.

[Gerard] Depardieu is still like that as an adult. He fools around and then you say, “Action!” and he’s the most miserable person in the world. Have you seen this weird film, Valley of Love [2015]? It’s extraordinary. He’s fat! He’s wearing these little briefs, and he’s got this huge stomach, he’s dripping with sweat – because the film takes place in Death Valley – and he’s so moving. Extraordinary. You’re with him in his suffering. He’s a marvellous actor. One of the greatest I’ve ever seen.  

And you discovered him, no?

Yes, I started a little film with him. Even before the one you see in The Beaches of Agnès, we had started a film called Christmas Carol. He was, I don’t know, maybe eighteen years old. We shot a few scenes. This producer, [Edmond] Tenoudji, had told me, “Show me what you’ve done and I’ll show it to my two young sons, let’s see if they like him.” And the two sons said, “This guy’s impossible, he sucks!” [Laughs]

Tenoudji refused; the film was never made. There exist maybe four shots in all. And Depardieu was so good. He walked past the shop windows at Christmas, full of expensive things, and said, “Money, money, always money… No, no, what is beautiful is Picasso!” [Laughs] Oh là là. 

It was nice because it spoke of the illusion, the reverie of a world in which art, culture, beauty would unite people. It’s a reverie we keep in a world that is cruel, where so much wrong has been done to so many loved ones; we have seen disasters, we have seen tragedies, there have been wars, there’s been incredible suffering. Everyone tells me, “You’re lucky not to have lost your good humour.” Perhaps that’s true.

That’s why it surprises me when you say, as you did earlier and also in The Beaches of Agnès, that Documenteur is your favourite of your films. It’s beautiful but it’s perhaps your saddest; it lacks your characteristic optimism, which is always felt on the edges, even in a film like Jacquot de Nantes.  

Yes, but I like sadness in films. I like crying at the cinema. You know the expression, ‘Don’t shake me, I’m full of tears’? When you cry at the cinema, you allow expression of your most intimate self. We all have a store of tears at the ready. So I like this film, which is truly sad.

I had asked myself, ‘Is it possible to film pain? Is there a way of representing something that signifies pain?’ A pain that is almost abstract, because it’s not, ‘he did this, she did that’. No, it’s when, all of a sudden, the feeling of pain takes over a person’s whole being. What can one do to capture this? With Nurith [Aviv, the DP,] we filmed things that we saw, which pained us and which we thought could express that which a discreet person won’t say explicitly: a man on the beach holding his baby; a woman with a limp who draws her curtains… It’s a film about discretion.

You can have romantic woes: "Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille" [Calm down, my Sorrow, we must move with care]. One of Baudelaire’s most beautiful poems is about suffering, but here the idea was to find a way of showing it without using words, to try and let documentary images speak in the place of people: since you can’t explain an emotion, you show something else. It’s a beautiful cinematic project! At times we’d film people, we didn’t know who they were or what they were doing. There was this woman, on her knees on the beach, manically clawing the sand. Later I thought it might have been something religious. Or another time there was this woman lying on her back on the beach with a Bible on her stomach and two men kneeling beside her, all of them immobile. We filmed them and I told Sabine and Mathieu to walk past in order to integrate them into the film.

The spectacle of that which happens even if we don’t understand it reflects the fact that we also don’t understand ourselves. I felt that all this suffering, expressed through images that were painful or incomprehensible, was a cinematic language that went back to such questions as, ‘Do we understand others?’ ‘Do we understand ourselves?’ ‘What do we know?’ ‘How is there an abstract pain that exists and sometimes dissolves into the fabric of life, into our everyday?’ It’s complicated to express such thoughts in cinema, one must find new forms, find ideas that are specifically cinematic.

And the music by [Georges] Delerue is magnificent, more than magnificent… He understood so well. I would show him the film and he’d improvise. [Sings, “Ta… ta… ta…”] Oh, I loved it when he was coming up with the music! He’s also a very particular man. He had a hunchback, he was slightly deformed, and he suffered a lot in his youth. Later he became successful, but he retained this humility that people have when they’ve experienced a lot of pain. I felt very understood by Delerue. He did a terrific job.

And all these ideas that I had, they exist in those piers in Los Angeles, which are the furthest point out into the sea. All those desperate souls who came to Los Angeles to succeed, to find gold – well, the rush West is towards gold and it ends like this, in Los Angeles. I filmed and there were only foreigners.

I saw such things, which validated my belief that the lives of others, the representation of others, constantly gives us images for ourselves, for us to try and understand what is happening, since we don’t always understand what is going on. This way of looking at others and finding… I don’t know if it’s comfort, maybe it’s the opposite: it’s observing how much more courageous they are than us, or more tolerant than us, or more intelligent than us… I find this enriching.

Did you find it less enriching to make The Beaches of Agnès, since it was autobiographical?

The Beaches of Agnès was quite personal, even if I did speak to a lot of people. Things, people, situations – it wasn’t just about myself in the end. Not too much. But this time, it was good working with JR, because Faces, Places really was a project for others. Will we meet people? What will they give us? What will we offer the viewer? Which images, large or small? And we were full of energy. I don’t like to say ‘positive energy’ because it’s corny, but it was a little bit of that, too.

You know, people are so quick to say things are going bad – it’s so easy. While we were shooting, there were the terrorist attacks in Paris. There was Calais, with that encampment. It was horrible. There’s something new every day. Here in Paris, recently, there was the thing in La Chapelle. There were women living on the sidewalk, so we donated twenty tents. Two days later, the police came, chased them off and took the tents! But it’s all so complicated and we are but leaves in the wind.

I try to find a substance that is purely cinematic. To not simply say: image and sound. I ask myself, ‘What makes cinema?’ I don’t know, I still have to find the definition, but I know that that’s what I’m looking for.

In the end scene of Faces, Places, that surprise visit where we encounter a locked door, what ensued I thought was cinematic substance. I felt that Jean-Luc [Godard] had co-written the script, essentially. He had contributed something. JR put it very well at the end of the film: Jean-Luc created a sort of virtual dialogue. This is something I really felt when I finished the edit. Did you notice something at the end of the film? Did you feel that it was something to stop the kindness?

How do you mean, “stop the kindness”?

Because the whole film is full of kindness and smiles.  

I half hoped the scene had been scripted, because it was heartbreaking that Godard wouldn’t open his door to you, considering your shared history and friendship. It did allow for that closing moment between you and JR, but it still felt like a callous gesture. 

Yes, but maybe it was good that he didn’t open, that’s what I’ve been thinking. He creates a tension. Maybe he would have opened his door and we’d have stood there, like two old fools. Well, I say it like this, but we have seen each other from time to time.

I really admire his work. I find him courageous. He’s famous but sometimes very few people understand him, so it’s courageous to continue. I don’t know what would have happened, but I did feel it was alright for him not to open his door. In retrospect, that is the real end of the film. At the time, it hurt, because he left that note with a reference to Jacques and that did upset me.  

Have you sent him the finished film? 


Do you know if he saw it? 

[Shrugs] There’s an expression that I love: mystère et boule de gomme [“mystery and gumball”, i.e. who knows]. I haven’t heard it in a long time. With Godard, I think we’re the last survivors of what was called the French New Wave. Because Chabrol is dead, Resnais is dead, Demy is dead, [Jacques] Rivette is dead… even [Jacques] Doniol-Valcroze, who was less famous… I think only Godard and I are left out of this group from the 1960s. I don’t have any news from him. As we sometimes say in the country: no news is good news. Although, I’m not sure that’s true…

But it’s not so bad, I think that the film has an organic evolution, with more and more interesting people. All of a sudden, JR sends me on a journey. That’s what he’s done his whole life, put images of people on trains that are departing. He pastes my eyes and my feet onto a train and off they go on a journey. He sends me off like that, which is a rather nice idea. It’s a way of saying goodbye, of seeing me off. So I told myself, ‘We’ll go on a trip for real. Let’s go see Godard,’ because one time JR had told me I was fortunate to have known Godard. We asked his permission, we said we would be shooting, his assistant said it was okay. And then I didn’t get to talk to him. Maybe I should have called him when we were outside. But no, that’s how I lived it, in the reality of what was happening. And then, by the lake, I had to… I don’t know, I wanted to recall the fond memories.

I don’t know exactly how I feel about it. It occurred very naturally and we kept an almost raw document of what happened. Funnily, my son Mathieu was there. That’s very weird. We shot for a year and a half and he never showed any interest. But that day he came and he took the second camera and he filmed me. That touched me. He was the first to approach when he understood things were going wrong and all the shots by the lake, it’s him who filmed them. I was very proud that it was Mathieu who filmed those close-ups of me; it made me happy. We were all there at the end. We took a group picture and I told myself, ‘My daughter produced the film, my son filmed some of it – in a way, this really is a filmmaker’s joy.’

Paris, 13 July 2017 

Translated from the French by the author.

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