NEW YORK – Agnes Varda, the 89-year-old Belgian-born filmmaking legend, emerges from her hotel room having dressed up for an evening event at Lincoln Center. She holds out the large silver heart-shaped medallion strung around her neck.
“I have a big heart,” she says with a smile.
A truer thing has never been said. Since her 1962 New Wave breakthrough, the real-time masterwork “Clio From 5 to 7,” and running up until her latest, the richly ennobling road trip documentary “Faces Places,” Varda’s much-distinguished career has been defined by a soul-searching warmth, an abiding, compassionate curiosity, and a deep desire, above all, to see.
“Life comes through the frame and through the stock. It’s like a filter,” says Varda. “We filter life to make it accessible to us. We want to learn and then give to other people images, song and emotion and discovery. We are artisans. I feel I am an artist but I am a movie maker. I make a film with my hands. I love the editing, I love the mixing. It’s a tool to make other people exist. It’s giving understanding between people.
“Understanding, empathy, sharing. I think they are beautiful words. They are not ridiculous.”
While perhaps not as widely known outside cinephile circles as some of her French New Wave contemporaries – Godard, Truffaut – Varda has been a humble but titanic presence across 20th century cinema. Originally a photographer, her films have, from the fierce feminist 1985 landmark “Vagabond” to her tender 2009 memory sketch “Beaches of Agnes,” charted a more eccentric and often whimsical path. She’s small in stature but her dual-toned bowl-cut hairstyle is, like her movies, immediately identifiable as her own.
“Beaches of Agnes,” Varda thought, would be her final feature film. But then she met the now 34-year-old street artist JR, who’s world renown for pasting grand portraits of photographs on huge, real-world tableaus – a boy gazing over a border wall in Mexico; giant eyes on a sailing cargo ship. A couple years ago, Varda, a fan of JR’s work, met him on a Monday in Paris. They started shooting that Wednesday.
“He does very spectacular things,” says Varda. “I’m more modest than he is. But we got along. I think our working couple works, no?”
They’re perhaps the oddest couple of the year but also the most charming. In “Faces Places,” which opens in New York on Friday and elsewhere in the coming weeks, she and JR traverse the French countryside in a van, meeting people along the way, hearing their stories and pasting their portraits. The images leave their subjects – a solitary farmer, wives of dockworkers – breathless.
An intuitive, improvised project became a long-running one. To pace Varda, whose eyesight has diminished, they worked one week every month for five months.
“We thought it would just be a summer,” says JR, who dons sunglasses and a hat throughout the film, but who spoke without either while Varda was spiffing up in the next room. “It’s like a summer love that got extended.”
“What we had in common is that you can approach everybody – anybody – if you have empathy and a desire to listen, to be honest, to be open,” says Varda of her co-director. “We worked with four eyes.”
Since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, “Faces Places” has left critics floored by Varda’s undiminished talent and spirit. “Unlike a lot of movies by older filmmakers, it’s as fresh as a daisy,” says Kent Jones, director of the New York Film Festival, which also screened the film.
A melancholy colors “Faces Places,” too, in its blend of playfulness and gravity. In one scene, Varda visits the rural cemetery where the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is buried. JR asks if she fears death and Varda says she’s looking forward to it.
“It’s not in the film but she said because she would be afraid to do `the film de trop,’ which means the one too much,” says JR. “For her, she already had her goodbye to cinema doing `Beaches of Agnes.’ But we kind of got taken and at some point we thought: maybe we have something worth sharing.”
“We tried to lighten. The world is such a mess, such a chaos. We decided we should not tell more about the chaos,” says Varda. “Maybe we are light. Maybe we like to smile. Maybe we love people so much that we want you to love them also.”
In November, the Academy Awards will honor Varda with a honorary Oscar, the latest in a parade of lifetime awards.
“It’s ridiculous. I’m well known but still remain poor, with poor audiences and poor box office. It’s like a consolation,” says Varda. “My daughter says I should go. But it’s the side Oscar. It’s not even in February. It’s in November. I think it’s the Oscar of the poor. I’m flattered but not that much.”
Varda has long been an inspirational, pioneering figure for women directors. When she began making movies, she estimates, there were three women filmmakers in France.
“When I started, my point was not to be a woman. I wanted to do radical cinema,” says Varda. “Now, France is a country where 25 percent of the filmmakers are women. We have an incredible amount of women film directors and DPs. More than here, I have to say. Because we have pushed the idea that they can do it, that there’s no reason they can’t do it. All the jobs of filmmaking can be made by women. And they are smart. And they are strong.”
Varda is still going strong, too. The morning after arriving in New York, Varda and her daughter Rosalie hustled to the Whitney Museum to see the exhibit of Calder’s mobiles. Varda, who made a short film about Calder in the `50s, gazed in wonder at the mobiles as they swirled above her.
“I try not to sleep,” she says with a glint in her eye. “Not yet.”
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