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A 'VAGABOND' S' PASSION FOR INDEPENDENCE : 'Mother of French Cinema' Produces Another Winner

One in an occasional series on women film directors.

June 25, 1986|CLARKE TAYLOR

NEW YORK — "It's been a very good year" for women in the French film industry, according to Agnes Varda, the French director generally considered to be the "mother" of the French cinema. "We still have a long way to go. Women do not make up 50% of our industry. But I think we're at last able to put aside that tiresome question, 'Why not more women directors?' "

A 30-year film veteran best known to American audiences for her early "Le Bonheur" and the strongly feminist 1970s film "One Sings, the Other Doesn't," Varda seems to have another success, in the United States as well as in France, with "Vagabond" (see adjoining review). The film, about a homeless young woman hitchhiking through the French countryside until she dies from the cold, is becoming one of France's most successful films, along with Coline Serreau's "Three Men and a Cradle," already in release.

"I find it disturbing that in this day and age there are still peoplewho are so cold, usually because they have no home or no family, that it kills them," said Varda on why she made "Vagabond." "As a woman, (the character Mona) is not only homeless and foodless, she's manless.

"She's part of a new breed of homeless young women who are set up with everything and who say, 'Leave me alone,' and are finally left alone. The refusal amazes me, disturbs me, and puzzles me," Varda said in an interview at her Paris studio earlier this year.

Films by six other women were released in France in 1985; at least nine other women are considered active film makers. They include Diane Kurys, Marguerite Duras and Ariane Mnouchkine, directors known to at least a limited American audience. There are at least eight more women actively producing films in France, including Michele Ray Gavras (wife of director Costa-Gavras) and, notably for an industry that relies heavily on government funds, Christine Gouze Renal, sister-in-law of French President Francois Mitterrand.

Various reasons have been suggested for the surge of activity among women in the industry. Some say the French Establishment has always been more open to women and that the women's movement in France has been stronger than in other countries. Some cite a long tradition of women among French film directors and say that the tradition is simply broadening to include producers, distributors--and investors. Nearly everyone notes the absence of a studio system, such as Hollywood's, which women have to "break through."

Varda, among others, believes it's also a matter of good timing.

"In France, culture has historically been as important as commerce, and in this respect I have always been taken seriously in France as a film maker," said Varda, noting that she usually feels like "a French cinema cultural gadget" when she visits the United States. "But never before now have so many women made money with their films, and that is the nitty-gritty, even in France."

She noted the significance of Serreau's dramatic success with "a moderately budgeted woman's film" at a time when even French films on their home turf are hard-pressed to compete with the big-budget American films now glutting the European market.

"I think people are looking for an alternative to the action/adventure/special-effects films, like those imported from America," observed Varda, "and women may provide an alternative--at least, if we are smart!"

She pointed out that it's difficult for any film maker to finance a film in France; that usually involves a mix of government funds, private investment, TV and foreign distribution sales. But she said it was especially difficult for "the kinds of subjects women are likely to deal with." She said she virtually financed, produced and distributed "Vagabond" in her own country herself.

"It's a little film and it could have had a little audience, but I took a risk," she said, "and obviously it touches a larger audience on some level. If we can support our own films, we might also be able to revive our own industry.

"Nobody's making the claim, 'We won, we won!' and there are still plenty of film makers who are not working," said Varda. "But our aim has not been numbers of women, but that women be taken as seriously as men. And the success of even a few women certainly helps the cause."

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