Agnes Varda:’ I am still alive, I am still strange. I am not a piece of decomposing flesh’

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The 90 -year-old giant of the Nouvelle Vague on her latest movie, Faces Places, life with Jacques Demy, and that dirty rat Jean-Luc Godard

Agnes Varda is a dizzying blur of flecks- polka-dot trousers, polka-dot shirt, polka-dot socks, polka-dot scarf.” I’ve always loved polka dots. Ah, oui . It is a joyful influence, the polka dot. It is alive .” You could say the same of Varda. She is more joyously alive than anybody I had previously been met.

The progressive film-maker, grandmother of the Nouvelle Vague( she was only 30 when she was given that soubriquet- a compliment of styles) recently marked her 90 th birthday with a huge feast and a swim in the ocean. Her recent cinema, Faces Home, is released after the UK this week. It was nominated for a best documentary Oscar earlier this year, acquiring her the oldest campaigner in Academy history.

Faces Lieu is a joint enterprise with 35 -year-old French photographer/ creator JR. The pair travel around rural France in JR’s ” magical ” truck, which resembles a huge camera and redoubles as a photo studio. They meet works, discussed this about occupations that are fast changing or becoming obsolete, and celebrate their lives with big portraits pasted on dwellings, walls, dockyards, rock-and-roll faces and qualifies. In the movie, Varda likewise revisits her own past and sees the future. It could easily be maudlin or depressing, but Faces Neighbourhood is an exhilarating celebration of life.

Agnes Varda:’ I’ve always adoration polka dots. It is a joyful condition .’ Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

It is also a tender romance between Varda and JR. They start by admiring each other’s work, then originate be known, aggravate one another( she is frustrated by his refusal to take off his hat and sunglasses, he by her slowness ), and love each other.

I meet Varda at a restaurant in Soho, London. In person she is tiny, with a two-tone haircut( white-hot in the middle, aubergine on the outside) that forms her looks a lot like a punk friar. The reces of the chamber has been lay out for the photographs but Varda indicates taking them outside and reassures the photographer that they will benefit from the natural flare. There, she says, they will find the beauty.

Minutes later, she is back, talking about her relationship with JR. It wields, she says, because he does not patronise her.” It’s not protecting the old age. I am still alive, I is and remains curious. I should not be treated like an old bit of decomposing flesh !”

In the movie, she talks about her failing eyes, and her rigor going, but determines amusement in her lessen riches. She shows us what it is like to see as she does- immense blurry words dance drunkenly across the screen. On one opportunity, we appreciate JR racing her in a wheelchair from envision to draw in an art gallery as she recites the names of the artists with respect. It is impossible not to smile. JR images her toes and sees and moves the photographs on to a train. Varda noticed this touching.” It was his practice of saying I am sending you to travel to neighbourhoods you will never identify because you are too old to go everywhere .”

He requests her if she panics fatality. No, she says, she is looking forward to it” because then that will be that !” It is true, she tells me, but she is certainly going to make the best possible use of what is left.

Varda was born in Belgium to a French mother and Greek father, and grew up in the minuscule Mediterranean fishing town of Sete, southern France. She was christened Arlette, but legally changed her name to Agnes aged 18. She studied literature and psychology at the Sorbonne, then art biography and photography. Varda began her working life as a photographer, but this did not satisfy her.” It was so silent. What is before and after the snapshot plots me .”

Her first cinema, La Pointe Courte, was released in 1955, filmed in Sete among the fishing community she grew up in. As she has done throughout her occupation, she melted detail and story. The throw predominantly is comprised of real beings doing their work alongside two professional performers( including the great Philippe Noiret shape his film introduction) as an unhappily married couple. La Pointe Courte came to be regarded as a precursor to the Nouvelle Vague.

Cleo from 5-7. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

In 1959, she fulfilled the administrator Jacques Demy and they fell in love. Both were determined to reshape the vocabulary of the movies. Demy did so by creating lush Technicolor musicals about regular working life in which every scrap of talk is sung. Half a century on, films such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg still seem revolutionary.

As for Varda, she says she found it easy to break the rules of film-making because she never knew them in the first place. When she started stirring movies, she had only seen about 10 films in her life. So, in Cleo From 5 to 7 she tells the story of the eponymous Cleo, a brilliance pa whiz waiting for a potentially terminal diagnosis, in real experience; Le Bonheur, about a carpenter who loves his wife but still requires more, is shot like an impressionist painting; Vagabond, a film about a young female drifter, begins with the death of the protagonist.

Her documentary The Gleaners And I is about those who pick up the speck to stay in battlegrounds by harvesters, and more generally those who live off scraps disposed by others. She has always insured herself as something of a gleaner. In her cinemas she never squanders; she repackages her past, acquires from her heroes and obliges merry with random instants. In Cleo from 5 to 7, we happen across a guy spewing up a tsunami of frogs from his stomach, and in The Beaches of Agnes, she zooms in on a naked male in a procession with a stonking erecting- memorable portraits, simply included under the delight of them. Her movies are fabulously French: experimental( like Godard ), memory fixated( like Marker and Resnais ), philosophical( like all three ).

But what moves her different is that at the heart of everything is the quiet, unobtrusive concentrating on girls- whether it is the female taxi driver in Cleo( very unusual back then ), feminism and abortion rights in One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, or herself in The Beaches of Agnes.

Varda with JR in Faces Home. Photograph: Cine Tamaris/ Kobal/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Varda was the lonely wife head in the Nouvelle Vague. Was she considered differently?” No, I don’t think so. I didn’t see myself as a woman doing film but as a revolutionary film-maker who was a woman. Slightly different .” I “re told” I couldn’t imagine any of her cinemas being made by humanities. She smiles.” I was glad to see that. I am the status of women. I conceive I have the flavour, the intelligence and dare I say the soul of the status of women .”

In the 1980 s, she and Demy went out to Hollywood to try their fluke. Demy obligated one critical and commercial flop, and Varda didn’t even get that far. When a Hollywood producer pinched her cheek, she reacted- and that was that. She still seems every bit as piqued as she was all those years ago.” It was disgusting to do this to me. I slapped him. But he deserved it .” Did that destroy her Hollywood career?” No , no , no. There were other reasons .”

Varda appears to have little time for the mainstream. The beginning of this year, she cast a cardboard cutout of herself to the Oscar campaigners’ lunch because she was otherwise employed- at 89, it was her first nomination. And hitherto she has mingled with the famed or soon-to-be-famous throughout her vocation. In the late 60 s, she and Demy recognise its full potential of a young Harrison Ford in Hollywood, but studio leaders told him Ford wasn’t worth the risk because he was hopeless and had no future in the business. She was close friends with Jim Morrison of the Doors, shedding him as an additional in her film Lions Love. She was one of only six people to attend his funeral in 1971. Around the same time, she contributed to the screenplay for Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexual drama Last Tango in Paris.

Varda and Demy, who was bisexual, separated for a while in the 80 s.” We had trouble, but it was still a strong relationship. Even then we lived on opposite sides of the street. And then we got together again and felt the pleasure of rediscovering the other after a little break .”

In 1990, aged 59, Demy died of Aids-related complications. But it was only some time later that the cause of his death was discovered.” Aids was such a pity in culture. He couldn’t face that. He didn’t want to discuss it. He thought he could obscure it. And he took a lot of energy to hide it .”

They had two children- Rosalie and Mathieu. Rosalie( from a previous tie-in and officially adopted by Demy) is a co-producer of Faces Plaza, and is accompanying her father today. Varda looks at Rosalie as she talks about Demy’s death.” Rosalie and I would have adoration him to make a declaration. To make a statement:’ OK, I’ve got Succours and that’s it .’ But he couldn’t accept the idea that it could be said, and we respected his decision .”

Did she ever find love after Demy?” No. Not a serviceman or female or anything. I never approached anybody’s skin. I don’t know if it was a decision. It just happened like this. I used to say my ability to love a follower was dead .”

Varda with Jacques Demy. Photograph: Sipa/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Varda made a movie about Demy’s early life in war-time France as he was dying. It was completed the week after his death. Jacquot de Nantes is still often shown in French schools and Varda is astonished by the profundity of the issues juveniles ask about the movie.” One child said:’ How do you recollect the reminiscence of somebody else ?’ And I said because I adoration him. And he said is that enough? And I said yes .” Like so much of her undertaking, Varda’s new movie is a two-fingered salute to the world’s obsession with luminary.” There are so many portraits of famous person, and personas of simulations who sell cosmetics and vehicles. I’m fed up with the famous people. I like to film and get the best out of normal people .” So she and JR realize portraits of the last remaining resident in a street of miners, the postman who delivers apples to an elderly lady as well as the upright, the one dame among 80 truck driver on the docks. All have fascinating floors to tell.

The one concession it obliges to fame is its citations to Jean-Luc Godard. She and Demy holidayed with the famous administrator and his first wife/ muse Anna Karina, but it sounds like a cold friendship. She says in all the years she has known Godard she has never hugged him. In the movie she takes JR on a bombshell excursion to inspect Godard at his home in Switzerland, but she alarms him that he can be erratic. Godard leaves a letter saying he is not there; that he is at a restaurant they used to frequent with Demy. Varda is destroyed because he is obviously at home and he seems to be taunting her with the reference to the restaurant where they expend many happy days. Varda announces him a dirty rat, and leaves him some cookies.

Why did he not open the door?” I will never know. His sister told me he said:’ What would we have done, what discussion would we have had ?’ He thought it would not be worth it. I think he was right. I would have said:’ JR, this is Jean-Luc; Jean-Luc, this is JR .’ So what? No, it is true for the movie it is better that he didn’t open .”

Next time she sees him, will she announce him a rat or thank him?” Both. I think it’s contradictory, as ever. He is a rat, and I’m glad he didn’t open. But at the time, I felt sickened and hurt .” In the end, she says she can forgive Godard anything because of his genius.

The word she returns to again and again is study, gist experimentation, the desire to constantly do things differently. That, she says, is something she shares with Godard.” I remember after Cleo they proposed that I made another story about a vocalist being sick. After Le Bonheur they meant I made another film about a threesome. Why would I make one film more if it’s the same? What would be the point ?”

Jane Birkin and Varda during Kung Fu Master, 1988.

Nowadays, Varda is spending less experience experimenting new ways of seeing cinema. Not because she hasn’t got the vigor but because she feels she can do more groundbreaking work with art stations. In the end, she says, all artistry is about communication. And facilities permit gatherings to engage more intimately than traditional movies do. Varda has obliged structures from 35 mm magazines of her age-old films and has turned her documentary, The Widows of Noirmoutier, into power installations where visitors put on headphones and choice which widow to spend time with.” I’m trying to move the relationship between people and art ,” she says.” Art should ring a bell in your lives. You should to involve. I don’t want people to say it’s great, I want people to say:’ It is for me .'”

We have been talking for two hours. You must be tired, I say. “No,” she says.” You must be tired of listening to me .” I ask if we can have a photograph together. Of trend, she says. The publicist takes the picture on my phone. Varda looks at it, and says the flare is too bright. The publicist takes another photo. Varda tells her we are too far away. And another. This time it is not bright enough. Eventually, Varda is happy with our snarl. She quizzes me about my life, and echoes my children’s calls as if revising them for the purposes of an exam.

” Do you have an Instagram ?” she questions as she prepares to leave.” I have one. I want to know everything about you, including the size of your shoes. Hehehe !” I “re told” she is welcome to my shoes.” I have small-time feet. I am tiny. I was always small-time. But exclusively physically .” She says she has lost two inches in recent years, but what is a couple of inches in the greater scheme of things?” We don’t need to be big to be in good shape. OK, allez . We perhaps fulfill another time, who are familiar with ?” And Agnes Varda, that irresistible force-out of human nature, blows out of the room.

Faces Places is out on Friday . Agnes Varda: 3 moving portraits, 3 lilts, 3 tones is at the Liverpool Biennialuntil 28 October

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