Agnes Varda, whose thrilling One Sings, the Other Doesn’t opens the 1977 New York Film Festival, is as pesky as she is petite: compulsively sharp-tongued, opionated, borderline rude. Shoes kicked off and bare feet slung up on her New York hotel couch, this five-foot Left Bank lily in a purple peasant dress readies for a quarrel. Varda can’t fathom that this film critic has seen little of the work of her favorite woman director, Hungary’s Marta Meszaros. "She has already done six films and three of those are great. It is strange therefore for you to be talking as a ‘specialist.’" And she ridicules the two movies she’s seen of my favorite, Dorothy Arzner. "I hated them. I thought she was a man! I’m not interested in seeing a film just made by a womannot unless she is looking for new images."
Varda reacts heatedly to my rather impolitic, obvious question, about her Le Bonheur (1965). "Let’s not go back to that," she bristles. "That was more than ten years ago." For the thousandth time, someone has asked Varda how she could make a film showing a wife drowning herself in a lake so that her husband can hang out freely with his mistress.
"Some people understood Le Bonheur," she replies disdainfully. "Women have become upset and asked, ‘How could you replace a woman with another woman?’ That’s what life is about. A man is replaced by another man in war. A woman is replaced by another woman in life." Another point of contention: Varda can not tolerate puritanical responses to Le Bonheur’s conclusion, where the husband blissfully marries the mistress. "If his wife committed suicide, and he wants to feel good with another woman, he has the right! Do you think he should cry for twenty years?"
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t catapults Varda back into the front-line of overtly feminist directors. But she can’t forgive those who have looked elsewhere in recent years, like to Ingmar Bergman. "He’s spent ten years in clinics, you know. Between each film, Bergman lies down like a corpseand then he makes a beautiful picture in which the woman is filled with anxiety." Robert Bresson too. "Bresson is a genius, but his women have to carry all that shit."
Varda was one of the original, acclaimed French New Wave directors; her 1962 Cleo from 5 to 7 was discussed in company with Truffaut, Godard, Resnais. However, Varda’s movies in recent years have played to smaller and smaller audiences in the USA, and to diminished critical interest.
Les Creatures (1966), her star package of Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, barely had a theatrical run. Lions Love (1969), an LA-set underground movie, managed a tiny cult reputation. It’s Varda’s most "far-out," Warholian reverie on sexual relationships: the Garbo-like Viva writhing in bed between the two male stars of Hair. As for Daguerrotypes (1975): Varda’s documentary appreciation for Rue Daguerre, the Paris street where she resides, has yet to pick up an American distributor.
Varda is adamant that she’s been the same all along, that One Sings departs from earlier films more in method than in ideology; it’s the latest incarnation of her struggles, since age 18, with women’s issues. She is a long-time abortion activist in France. (The most famous Gallic feminist demonstrationthe trial at Bobigmy in which the rapist of a young girl denounced his victim for having an abortionis recreated in One Sings.) Women’s films? "Look, I’ve done them since 1958," Varda lectures me."L’Opera Mouffe was a short film about the contradictions of pregnancy. I was pregnant at the time, told I should feel good, like a bird. But I looked around on the street where I filmed, and I saw people expecting babies who were poor, sick, and full of despair."
Varda also talks of Cleo, her real-time drama about a beautiful singer who thinks she has cancer. "It’s about a passive woman who becomes an active woman. She takes off her wig and begins to look at people. Sometimes a woman needs a shock as big as death." And, yes, the artist’s prerogative is to contradict oneself. Suddenly, it’s Varda who takes to task the wife in Le Bonheur for standing by while her husband adopts a lover. "That woman wants to be an angel. Nobody is an angel. She should have said to him, ‘Go to hell! I want to be alone with you.’"
Varda evolved her theories about feminist art while making non-feminist leftist films. For Salut les Cubains! (1963), she took 6000 photo stills in Cuba and animated them into a work that "makes a point about socialism and cha-cha-cha, that you don’t have to be heavy when you stand for socialism, or feminism either. Feminism can be fun." Far From Vietnam (1967) confirmed Varda’s theory by negative example. Varda and various French director-intellectuals (Godard, Chris Marker, Jacques Demy, etc.) combined for a heavy-handed, didactic anti-War tome "which didn’t help anyone. We weren’t simple enough. We were on a cultural artistic intellectual chic Left Bank trip. Do you think we managed to get peasants and workers to think about Vietnam, ‘Wow, that’s just like the Algerian war’?"
Most important for her feminist education was Varda’s journey to Oakland, California, to cover the Huey Newton trial for her Black Panthers: a Report (1968). "The Black Panthers were the first to say, ‘We want to make the rules, the theory.’ And that’s what made me aware of the woman situation. A lot of good men had been thinking for us. Marx did. Engels did. These people did beautifully. Yet maybe we need to get through Marx, for Marx doesn’t give the keys and answers for us women." If women must independently find their images, what of feminist-friendly men? "If men want to join, leave the door open. They can listen," Varda says.
By this time, deep in our interview, animosity has seemed to slip away. Varda volunteers her strategy for One Sings. "Make it clear, simple, not too complicated. If I put myself on the screenvery natural and feministmaybe I’d get ten people in the audience. Instead, I put two nice young females on the screen, and not too much of own leftist conscience. By not being too radical but truly feminist, my film has been seen by 350,000 people in France. It’s better if they all got half the message than to have 5000 people seeing a courageous 16mm film."
I note: "You say you aren’t so radical, but your films are much more radical than many by people who say they are radical." Varda shrugs, but she looks complimented. And the interview is over.
(The Real Paper (Boston) - October 15, 1977)