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INTERVIEW WITH AGNÈS VARDA

French New Wave director is in L.A. to promote a new documentary

The octogenarian is also the subject of an American Cinematheque weeklong tribute.

July 03, 2009|Susan King

Agnes Varda has been directing films for 55 years. So it's no wonder she even directs an interview.

"Well, what about you?" asks the award-winning French filmmaker, a youthful 81. "Are you a critic or a reviewer? Do you know who is reviewing the film?

I do interviews.

"So you do the 'hello, hello,' " she says.

The diminutive Varda is sitting in a cozy room at the Santa Monica home of her longtime friends, filmmaker Zalman King ("Red Shoe Diaries") and his artist wife, Patricia Louisianna Knop, both of whom are featured in Varda's latest movie, "The Beaches of Agnes," which opens today.

Her shoes are off. Her two-tone colored hair is cut in a bob. And she occasionally stifles yawns, having gone through a grueling taped interview session earlier that day for the Directors Guild of America archives, as well as doing Q&A's at the American Cinematheque's weeklong tribute to her.

Varda describes "The Beaches of Agnes" as an "unidentified flying object" because "it's a strange documentary."

And a very entertaining one from the filmmaker of such narrative features as "Cleo From 5 to 7," "Vagabond" and the documentary "The Gleaners and I." "Agnes" chronicles her life around her beloved French seaside communities.

Varda guides us through her childhood, her career as a photographer, director, her marriage to director Jacques Demy ("The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"), who died in 1990, her two children and her friends and colleagues.

"Sometimes numbers make a very important point," she says. "I remember turning 20. I remember turning 50. It was like two years ago and I was seeing the number 80 coming to me like a zoom. To pass from 79 to 80 is something, so I have to do something about that since I am a filmmaker."

"Beaches," she says, "is not about being 80 but a film that says this is my year of being 80. I don't want to bore the people, that's why it's not exactly a documentary. I tried to find a shape that will make the film . . . not just a recitation."

Appearing on camera wasn't difficult for Varda. "I was very shy when I was young," she says. "I am no longer shy. I was until I started to become a filmmaker. But I am no longer shy at all. I am not acting. I just speak to the camera like I speak to you."

Varda stops talking because the setting sun is spilling into the room and into her eyes. Cut to new setting.

"I think we should change rooms," she says. "We will end up burned." So the interview moves to the dining room.

Demy plays a huge part in the documentary. "I wanted to speak about him. He has been a big part of my life. We spent many years together. It's not a film about him, so I have to find the right composition, the right proportion speaking about him."

Varda loves coming to Los Angeles. She and Demy first arrived here in 1967 so he could make his only Hollywood movie, "Model Shop." Varda also made the quirky 1969 "Lions Love," starring Andy Warhol icon, Viva.

"It was a shower of freedom," Varda says of L.A. "Suddenly, everything was different. It was a peace and love time. They were trying to have sexual revolutions and colors were daring. They were eating different. I had to learn the language and we threw ourselves into the generation and we loved it so much."

The minute she arrives in Los Angeles, says Varda, she becomes happy. "It doesn't mean the world is better, but there is something in the air. I loved to be here. I come here often. I am not dealing with a Hollywood studio, but it's a very inspiring city for cinema."

These days, Varda is concentrating on video installations. In fact, one of her museum installations -- three video screens filled with images of potatoes -- is in the film. Even Varda is dressed as a potato.

"I want to investigate," she says. "I want to discover. You don't ask a novelist to make books of 220 pages all the time. Installations -- I really believe are another step in investi- gating what is image and sound."

--

susan.king@latimes.com

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