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Agnès Varda, a French Filmmaker in California

Agnès Varda, the leading light of the French New Wave who passed away on March 29 at the age of 90, was as much at home in Paris as in California, where she directed six films between 1967 and 1981 and where she received an Honorary Oscar in November 2017. We met up with the French artist in 2013 when she was a guest at the LACMA museum in Los Angeles.

With her piercing gaze and her fist raised, French director Agnès Varda shook up the little world of French cinema from the start of the 1960s. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) — a stroll through Paris with a singer — is now considered to be a treasure of the French New Wave. But Varda wasn’t content with simply reinventing cinematic narration from the comfort of Parisian apartments. Her 1985 movie Vagabond starring Sandrine Bonnaire takes viewers on a journey with a young wayfarer as she travels across France. The French director’s desire for adventure then led her to more exotic climes. Sporting her iconic bowl-cut, she flew to California in 1967 with her husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy, who was travelling to Los Angeles to make his first American film, Model Shop (1968), starring Anouk Aimée.

Flower Power and American Counterculture

While in America, Varda discovered a brand-new world with the birth of counterculture, the hippy movement, and its rejection of the Vietnam War. She decided to make a movie about it, and created Lions Love (… and Lies) in 1969, a libertarian manifesto somewhere between fiction and documentary. The film stars the actress Viva — Andy Warhol’s protégée — and the creators of the musical Hair as they experiment with living and loving as three in a Beverly Hills villa. With long hair and buttocks exposed, the trio puts the world to rights with a little help from psychoactive substances. “I combined several icons of the time in a single film. Viva, the actress and Warhol’s muse, and Jim Rado and Gerome Ragni, two actors who actually wrote the screenplay. And of course, Shirley Clarke, the underground filmmaker from New York. These characters were representative of the excesses and utopian vision of the time.”


Lions Love (… and Lies), 1969. © Max Raab/Agnès Varda

Against the backdrop of neon lights and giant posters, the movie is Varda’s benevolent take on a handful of well-meaning rebels as they dream of bringing down Hollywood while enjoying the perks and riches of the celebrity system. The kindly depiction of a certain hippy movement is tinged with melancholy when Viva and her two lovers follow the live television coverage of the painful hours after Bobby Kennedy’s shooting. Reality rears its ugly head in the world of illusions, and no one even thinks of cracking a smile…

Filming the Street, Filming Life

The exhibition featured photos of the American photographer and graffiti specialist Martha Cooper. Varda preferred to document life in working-class neighborhoods and nascent artistic movements rather than the bourgeoisie. “I didn’t have a specific goal when I arrived, but I was fascinated by the city. The incredible renewal running through it, the contrasts, and the radically changing behaviors. There was both a generation that thought the French were not grateful enough for their liberation by the Americans in 1944, and young people who were protesting violently against the Vietnam War […]. The sociologist Marshall McLuhan had started to explain that ‘the medium was the message.’ It was becoming important to be represented, seen, and shown. The exuberance of the hippies, the ‘peace and love’ movement, and the ‘sex and politics’ of this sexual liberty which was growing everywhere were all completely new to us. I suppose that depicting all of this in a fictional work was my goal,” she says.


A Black Panthers demonstration in Berkeley, 1967. © Agnès Varda

The American Uncle

Varda took part in protests in an attempt to speak with the leaders of different social movements at the time. “I used to say ‘French television,’ which was a keyword in America,” she says. “But filmmakers were also hard at work, especially without cameras. Their labor was first and foremost one of journalism. I wandered around, exploring every nook and cranny of the city, curious to discover this population of ‘Chicanos,’ while witnessing the juxtaposition with other neighborhoods filled with renowned actors who lived in Beverly Hills, or directors such as Roman Polanski who resided in Bel-Air, a highly-protected haven for the rich. And of course we were so impressed by the weather.”

But the contrasts and inequalities were still there. “Even though there were homeless people on the street in Los Angeles, in Venice Beach and downtown, we never had the impression they suffered as much as in Paris […]. I didn’t think I would work when I arrived, but I had a few surprises such as discovering my uncle Yanco [the Greek painter Jean Varda, who lived on a boat in San Francisco], and the Black Panthers.”

Alongside the Black Panthers

She was also one of the first people to film the movement in Berkeley in early 1968. With help from Tom Luddy, who went on to work with Francis Ford Coppola, she positioned her camera right in the middle of a protest led by militants from the Black Panther Party, who demanded the release of one of their imprisoned ideological leaders, Huey Newton. The documentary was made on a shoestring budget, and is a politically engaged manifesto in support of the Black Panthers while radically condemning the Oakland police force.

The work offers 24 minutes of raw material, including interviews with activists talking with their defense groups. There are also extracts from a speech by Stokely Carmichael, the first leader of the movement. “The statement and defense of black culture was a magnificent thing to witness. Unfortunately, the movement destroyed itself in three years, and its program became weak and clunky. I was lucky to capture footage from this time, because it has become an important document.”


Mur murs, 1980. © Ciné-Tamaris

American Graffiti

Varda had the same intuition for the graffiti movement. “I noticed these mural paintings in 1979, and no one was talking about them. There were no inventories, nor archives. It was spontaneous art taking place in the street,” she says by way of introduction for Mur, murs (1982), a documentary about mural paintings by Mexican workers. “Nowadays, street art is well established, but no one but the neighbors cared about it at the time.”

While she now lives in France, Varda feels right at home anywhere in California. “Everything is interesting in California. Then there is the East Coast, and New York of course. America is a vast, densely-populated country with major problems, beautiful utopias and great projects. But this is also the case for many other countries. I’m not obsessed with America.” Invited to the exhibition in Los Angeles by the curator (Rita Gonzalez), the museum director (Michael Govan) and the director of the American Film Institute (Jacqueline Lyanga), Varda continues to “transmit the cinephile currents and vibes to the Americans, who like to know how foreigners see L.A.” Her “Californian” films have become nothing short of landmarks of local history.

Article originally published in the January 2014 issue of France-Amérique

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