Agnès Varda, a last nod to life

“Life winks at us”, she confided to Pèlerin, in June 2017, at the release of her delightful documentary Faces, villages, co-directed with photographer JR. She then received us in her little house in the rue Daguerre, in Paris. It is a few steps away, in the Montparnasse cemetery, that she now rests with her husband Jacques Demy, the director of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and Peau d’âne.

Agnès, you are a filmmaker, JR, you are a photographer. Tell us about Faces villages, this documentary that made your paths cross…

AV : We criss-crossed rural France, driving a “magical photographic van”, entrusting to chance the care of making us meet anonymous people who would amaze us with their stories, their words.

J.R. : What interested me was meeting people, but through the eyes of Agnès. While she has spent her life refining her view of people and the world, Agnès now sees things blurry. Trying to understand his “vision” of things was close to my heart. In our documentary, a scene, shot at a fishmonger, gives full meaning to the fact that Faces villages is a four-handed work: Agnès framed the image and I took care of focusing on the fish.

You are “urban” artists. Why this interest in the campaign?

J.R. : I know little about the rural world, at least in France. “You’re a city dweller, I’ll take you to the villages,” Agnès told me. It became a rule: for our documentary, we weren’t allowed to go anywhere else.

AV : I would have loved to have had a peasant grandmother or great-aunt. I missed it. So, since then, I’ve been “catching up” on my own.

This France of villages, what do you remember?

AV : We have not entered into an economic or political study. Small or large, a village, for us, is first and foremost a group of people who sometimes ignore each other, but whom we brought together and who were happy to share a moment around our project. We had no other goal.

You both have a way of marrying real world and fantasy. What’s your secret?

AV : Village faces , it’s really a mixture of spontaneity and hard work. There are images from the film that chance handed to us on a silver platter. We said to ourselves: what a chance, let’s take advantage of it. For example, this scene where a sheep farmer explains to us that, in a herd, it is the youngest who lead the dance. This sent us back, in an amused way, to our age difference… We have to be attentive to these winks that life offers us.

J.R. : There were probably only two cranks like us to land one day in a chlorine products factory, stick giant fish on its water tower and make this place a playground and exchanges with its employees . We also trained people to be imaginative in what they say. You have to be able to allow yourself this fantasy.

AV : At the same time, we didn’t show up and say, “Hello, we’re two clowns. » We complied with the safety rules of the factory. Behind all this there is a lot of work, a technical complexity: the installation of scaffolding, the collage of giant photos… And at the same time, you always had to be ready for something to happen, to be curious about people, listening to chance.

Again this word “chance”. Could you replace it with “Providence”?

AV : No, it’s like the word “destiny”, it scares me. I have no religion, although I respect them all. I think we are leaves in the wind. We sit where we can. If chance makes us offers, we take them. If misfortune strikes us, we have to deal with it – and we can say that I had a rather “ugly” century. But it’s crazy to see how artists, especially religious ones, have always filled my life with joy. I can cry in front of the Descent from the Cross of a Flemish painter, and I love the Pieta of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon . I am fascinated by the power of these representations. It’s as if we were forcing the doors of thought. All of a sudden, I feel overwhelmed by beauty. For me, it’s a gift! These artists found the aesthetic form capable of marking believers and inspiring them in their faith. I am not a believer but I read the Bible very young, with great attention and curiosity. It’s an incredible story, in the same way it seems to me that The Iliad and The Odyssey . All of this fueled my thinking and reinforced my idea that the imagination is king.

And you, JR, what is your relationship to religion?

J.R. : I strongly believe in the etymology of this word, which means “connecting people”. In my work, when I make and glue giant photos, I do so using a very archaic technique, which consists of putting strips of paper next to each other, like in a giant puzzle. Sometimes it takes hundreds of people to get through this complex creative process, in places you don’t expect. People then become aware of the need for mutual aid. They discover that you can knock on your neighbour’s door to ask for a hand. You just have to create the excuse, the pretext, for that. In the end, the way of making my works matters just as much as the result. Otherwise, I would stretch a giant tarp between four stakes and it would stop there…

AV : It’s interesting, the idea of ​​the link. People can’t be alone, it’s too hard to be alone. The link is necessary, it “maintains” people. A society that has neither law nor religion is nonsense.

Fifty-five years separate you. Does age, the passage of time, bother you?

AV : I like to see myself grow old. I’m interested. One day, I found potatoes in the shape of a heart, which I immortalized with a series of photos. I kept them, then they shrivelled, becoming inedible. But with their germs, life was still teeming inside. I saw in it – somewhat clumsily – a paraphrase of my life: I am an old thing that is still germinating. My hands, my eyes get damaged, but that’s part of life. As long as we can, we must above all fight against the “enemy”: imbecility, laziness, boredom, indifference, aging from within. But I’m lucky enough to age quite well, spared from illness and great suffering, surrounded by my children and grandchildren. I am extremely favored.

J.R. : I hope to live the most “carpe diem” (“Seize the present day”, Editor’s note), in the strictest sense of the term. With my photo installations, I take risks: I go to countries without necessarily having obtained authorizations, I walk on the edge of the roofs…

AV : It’s true that you haven’t been very careful lately…

J.R. : Let’s say that I live fully. I have the feeling that each day could be the last and that you shouldn’t believe that I will have the chance to live as long as Agnès. You have to be aware of this luxury. Otherwise, that’s where we no longer see the time passing.

Agnès Varda, a last nod to life