Agnes Varda: Controversy in Eye of Beholder

Times Staff Writer

French director Agnes Varda at 61 is very much the same woman she was more than 20 years ago when she first came to Hollywood. She herself admits to no great sense of time passing, except in the maturing of her children, Mathieu, who co-stars in her new film, “Kung Fu Master!” and is now going on 17, and Rosalie, 31, who designs costumes for the opera.

Varda is short, compact, dresses simply and speaks with the wit and the matter-of-factness of her films, which include “Cleo from Five to Seven,” an early work in France’s New Wave, and the more recent “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” and “Vagabond.” Varda still wears her dark hair in a short Dutch bob, and her gaze is as direct as ever.

In her Chateau Marmont cottage, Varda complained about the unreliability of the TV, the phone and the plumbing, “but I love it. I love so much to be here. Los Angeles is where I feel good.” Yet in returning to Los Angeles, where she and her husband, director Jacques Demy, lived and worked in the late ‘60s and for various periods thereafter, Varda found herself full of contradictions.

She hated leaving her husband, currently stricken with a severe case of phlebitis; she hated being able to stay only long enough to promote “Kung Fu Master!”; and it disturbed her to find that in America the fight for a woman’s right to have control over her own body was having to be fought all over again.


As a sophisticated Frenchwoman, Varda is not about to allow her picture to be described as controversial simply because it involves an affair between a 40-year-old woman, played by Jane Birkin, and a 15-year-old (Mathieu Demy), who is one of her daughter’s classmates. “I don’t see it as controversial,” said Varda, with a firm, contemptuous dismissal. “I see it as off-center. Such relationships allow people to become different persons, to escape themselves. For the woman it was a chance to come back to the time of her adolescence, a much deeper need in her than sex. And it allows you to see what the boy needs. Boys want so much to become men, and all society tells them is to be good, to get good grades and to straighten their rooms.”

“Kung Fu Master!” grew out of “Jane B. by Agnes V.,” which Varda describes as an essay on Birkin, a film portrait of the British actress and singer who has long resided in France. “I was trying to invent a new category. I was asking, what is an actress? How can she be herself? I showed her in excerpts of films that she’s never done. I made her play Jeanne of Arc, a woman of the Renaissance and Stan Laurel. (Noted Italian actress Laura Betti played Hardy.) Jane said, ‘You made me do all these different women. Why for once can’t I be myself? With my kids, wearing jeans and no make-up.’

“You remember, Jane was one of the models in ‘Blow-Up,’ and she’s done a lot of French comedies that haven’t been seen here. Then there was that famous song, ‘I See You . . . Neither Do I,’ she did with Serge Gainsbourg where they did all those noises of love-making. It got banned by the Vatican. The Italian distributor even went to jail. After that, she was never received in Great Britain.

“Meanwhile, she had a lot of children--three by three different men--and became a grandmother. She’s beloved by everybody in France, half the audience at her concerts is under 18. I couldn’t believe it! But she doesn’t behave like a frightening woman to young people. She’s like a loving sister to them.


“Anyway, she very shyly handed me a 10-page treatment which became the premise of ‘Kung Fu Master!’ She’s very sentimental. What she wrote for herself was very good, but the boy in the story was a ghost. She saw him as ‘Camille.’ I said, ‘Well, forget it. This is 1987-88. Forget the Marguerite Gauthier boy. I buy your sentimentality and nostalgia for adolescence, and I’ll write the boy. It will be a woman in love with a boy not yet a man, but he would be passionate for video games.’ Video games are important because they embody myths: David and Goliath, the pursuit of the Holy Grail, the freeing of Andromeda, the journey of Ulysses.

“They both want escape, but freedom is an illusion, as we all know. It’s an impossible love, but in terms of what it liberates in each of them, it’s good. The boy doesn’t have to be a man, they don’t have to be a couple, and that’s where they really meet.

“So I said to Jane, ‘You bring the woman, and I’ll bring the boy and the society of today.’ Kids have always been curious about sex and interested in love. It’s always been difficult to be 14 or 15, but with AIDS the pressure is so much worse. I told Jane that I respected her feelings about wanting to be what she wanted to be and that she could be as near as possible to being herself, but that the story would be a fiction--with the texture of reality. We shot in her house with her own children playing her children, and her own parents in London playing her parents.”

“Kung Fu Master!” was not the first time she directed her own son--he played the child in her short 1981 narrative, “Documenteur” (“An Emotion Picture”), shot in Venice, Calif., in 1981--but it may be the last.

“He says he doesn’t want to become an actor,” said Varda. “He says that only if he doesn’t succeed in anything else he’ll become an actor because it’s the easiest thing in the world. His father and I are very amused at that.”

Varda resists the notion that she has come into her own in the past decade. “After 35 years I still have a hard time finding money,” she said. “But I only make films that I love. Can you imagine the freedom that represents? All over the world people come up to Jacques and me and tell us how much they have loved our films. This is the real reward of the real artist.”