'She was more into humanity than being an intellectual.' Rosalie Varda on her mother's wit, wisdom, and legacy to celebrate the release of ‘Varda by Agnès,’ in theaters now.
The best artists do more than entertain or inspire—they transform. For more than 60 years, the avant-garde filmmaker Agnès Varda transformed the medium of cinema and the lives of those who watched her films, creating a body of work informed by curiosity, compassion, and innovation. When she passed away this spring, thousands flocked to Paris for her funeral, and this fall, both the Telluride Film Festival and New York Film Festival were dedicated in her honor.
The gaping hole that Agnès left speaks to her unique position as one of the greatest artists of our time, but despite her legendary status, she was remarkably accessible and down-to-earth. Many of her later films became autobiographical ones, in which she openly documented her life and point of view, parading joyfully across France with the artist JR, or collecting heart-shaped potatoes with rural ‘gleaners.’ I discovered Agnès Varda’s films when I was 13, and thanks to their openness, I often felt tethered to her, guided by her wisdom and glowing outlook on life and art. The personal connection that she forged with fans around the world is a gift that only the greatest artists can give.
At New York Film Festival last month, I met with Agnès’ daughter Rosalie, who helped produced her mother’s later films and now runs the family’s production company, Ciné-Tamaris. We discussed Agnès Varda’s final film Varda by Agnès, her 1976 feminist musical One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, and her legacy for the next generation of creators.
Tia Glista—How has it been, taking the film around and sharing it?
Tia—How do you hope that people feel when they see it?
Rosalie—I [hope] they enjoy it and they enjoy the good emotions. I hope it gives them the desire to see another film of Agnès’.
Tia—I think it will, absolutely. Even though it’s an incredible look back at all of the work that she made, I felt when I was watching it that it’s also like a manifesto for the future of film in a way. I wonder if she ever talked about her hopes for the future of film?
Rosalie—I don’t know that, really. I think it’s a difficult question—I cannot answer for her, but I think she was hoping that new film directors would keep their curiosity and would always think to do their own project, with as little concession as possible. Even with a little digital camera or an iPhone. She was doing a kind of militantisme, saying, ‘Do it! You want to be a film director? Go!’ So be good. Try to be excellent. That doesn’t mean the film will work or [make] money, but do your project.
Tia—What do you think that the film industry can continue to learn from her?
Rosalie—The film industry… I don’t think they have anything to learn from her because they didn’t really accept her, so it’s more what the audience, the students, the people can take from her films. The industry, it was not her problem. She had her own company, she was co-producing or producing her films, or she was produced by a woman, like Mag Bodard, a film producer in the ‘60s.
Tia—I think also what you are speaking to is how she started in the film industry without many connections or money or traditional film experience, which is so inspiring particularly today, where so many films have massive budgets and are so elaborate–
Rosalie—–Well, her films were very elaborate.
Tia—Yes, elaborate in an intimate way.
Rosalie—Yes, because of the subjects that were interesting her, not subjects that needed to stop the Avenue of the Americas and add 2,000 people in period costume. But they were very elaborate. She was always saying, ‘I’m not an intellectual.’ She was more into humanity, than being an intellectual.
Tia—Her films certainly have that feeling. For you, what are some of your earliest memories of your mother’s films and when did you realize what an important person she was?
Rosalie—To be honest, I don’t really remember when I realized my mother was a filmmaker. What I can say is that with my brother Mathieu Demy, we have grown up with the films of Agnès and Jacques Demy, and I think we saw those films differently getting older. If you see a film when you are 10 years old, it’s not the same if you are 20, or 30, or 40, or 50, or 60. I am more than 60 now, so I think I realized that through her films I could understand who she was, maybe, and I could [feel] the emotion of the film differently. I remember very well that when I was late teenager and I had a love affair that broke, and I remember then that I understood The Umbrellas of Cherbourg so much better than before.
Tia—Absolutely. I’m thinking of the end of One Sings, The Other Doesn’t and your appearance at the end of that film, playing the role of teenaged Marie who symbolizes the future of the women’s movement. What did you learn about feminism from your mother?
Rosalie—Ooof! That I learned very quickly! To be independent, to own your life, to drive the car and not to be on the other seat, how to love men and have children and share family and friends. Her feminism was very wise, I think, and she didn’t mean because you’re a feminist, you don’t have difficulty in your love life or family life. I have three boys—36, 28, and 24—and I [essentially] raised them alone because my ex-husband didn’t really take care of them. My boys know how to cook very well, because I like to cook and they were used to seeing their mother cook and so would help me. I realized that feminism, when you raise kids, is very delicate, because you teach them everything, but will they do it afterwards? I don’t know. So I was raised by a mother that always said to me, ‘You will have success by your work, not by putting your seduction first, but by your work. You need to try for excellence.’ [At the same time], she was doing the cooking, or paying someone to do work in the house so she could do creation and films and didn’t want to argue [about] who was going to wash the clothes and iron. She had very positive feminism—and it wasn’t that you have to do 50/50.
Rosalie—It’s practical! You know, I’m not sure I want the man with whom I share my life and that I love to do 50% of the cooking… he cooks really badly! Maybe I would prefer that he does something else! We cannot think that a woman, a wife, or a mother will do a double journey of work—like in One Sings, The Other Doesn’t. I love this film because I was 18 when I did it, and [Agnès] said, ‘It will be your birthday present.’ When you’re 18, you want to have a nice dress or pair of shoes, and your mother says, ‘I’m going to do a film for you…’ What am I going to do with a film? [laughs]
Tia—Well that makes me think of what you were just saying, about revisiting films at different periods of your life. I wonder how that film has changed for you.
Rosalie—I think it’s very joyful and now we look at it as a kind of vintage thing, you know, the fashion is funny and those girls are really a bit wild and free. It’s a very interesting film, saying that you can change—even if the beginning of your life was misery, you can change and go on and be happy, love another man, construct something else. You can have a life without children, too. It’s a film [about] giving women a lot of liberty. And the end is giving hope for the next generation, and saying Marie—which is me for one scene—is the future. I hope she will not have to struggle like the mothers in the film and the other women before, but we still have to struggle. We need still to say that abortion should be free and for every woman on the planet, and it’s not. We still struggle to have equivalent salary.
Tia—The film is still incredibly relevant, because those struggles still exist. But there is also hope in it, as well.
Rosalie—Yes! But when you see that in the States, abortion is going backwards—we are in 2019 and Agnès did this film in 1976—wow, you know…. there is still work to do. So I will still fight for that.
Tia—That’s very important. I fight for that too. Do you have a favorite film of hers or one that you think more people should pay attention to?
Rosalie—I consider her films like my children. I take care of them, so, no, I don’t have a favorite film. It depends on the day or the emotion. They are different and in each film, I find something that is near to me.
Tia—They all have special significance. She was so full of beautiful little wisdoms too. There is one interview that I saw a few years ago, where she is asked what happiness means to her, and she says, ‘Happiness is what I had for lunch—watermelon and parma ham, or cheese and orange marmalade. The salty and sweet inside of us all of the time, that is happiness.’ And I always think of that because it really touched me.
Rosalie—I understand why she said that, because happiness is not simple. It’s true—in happiness, sometimes it’s not so sweet. It’s totally her…. And it’s a way not to answer the question! Which is totally her, too.
Tia—Well, I found it very beautiful [laughs]. I think that what is very unique about her as a filmmaker and an artist as well is that people didn’t just have the sense that they loved her films, but that they loved her as a person.
Rosalie—I agree, I love her too! [laughs]
Tia—Of course! Do you think she had a sense of what she meant to strangers, though?
Rosalie—I don’t think she really realized that she had become an icon for a young generation, maybe because she never made concessions and she didn’t care that she wasn’t doing big business…She did what she wanted, and her liberty, maybe, is something that is so strongly felt by people… I was so in admiration when we were traveling together and she was curious about anything! [In New York], she loved to go to CVS and just buy stupid things, and she would always say, ‘Look at all those nail polish colors, or the hair [products], or look at this plastic thing!’ Everyday there was something that could make her laugh or smile, so that maybe even if they don’t know her, people feel that she is near them, that she is part of the family. She’s not, like, an icon where you cannot touch her—she felt more like somebody to whom you can speak. And her films speak to you. You can exchange with her through cinema. An artist wants to be known by what they are doing, and she always said that people would know her by her films.
She realized at the end of her life that she was a little bit known, like, people would stop her in the street in New York and we would say, ‘ow! They know you on the streets of New York!” and she would say, ‘Oh, well maybe that guy is doing film studies,” and I would say, ‘I don’t think so!’
Agnès’s final film, Varda by Agnès, arrives in theaters nationwide on November 22, 2019.