When Agnes Varda walks into the lobby of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, she’s immediately recognized by a fan. It’s easy to spot the legendary filmmaker and artist: she’s noticeably short — this writer stood at about twice her height — with a bowl cut presently dyed purple-ish on the sides and white up top. The colors change but the ’do has remained the same since the 1960s, not long after her first film: 1954’s “La Pointe Court,” considered the first film of the French New Wave, the movement of which she was the only female member.
Varda was one-half of one of the great power couples; her late husband is Jacques Demy, the designer of gorgeous happy-sad musicals like “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort.” But her own films are equally rich and wondrous. She has hopped back and forth between fiction and documentary, excelling in the former (“Cleo from 5 to 7,” “Vagabond”) and in the latter (“Daguerrotypes,” “The Gleaners and I”). She’s made shorts and features, and films about herself (“The Beaches of Agnes”) and others (“Black Panthers,” films about Cuba and the class struggle in Los Angeles). She hasn’t made a film since 2008’s “The Beaches of Agnes,” having moved into installation and gallery work. (MoMA has one of her pieces that ran at LACMA through last year, though it has yet to go up.)
The reason she’s in New York is the Lincoln Center’s documentary showcase Art of the Real, running through April 26 and which has a sidebar devoted to her not always screened non-fiction work. On the way to a quiet interview room, she passes by a screen showing a trailer for “Full Moon in Paris,” the Eric Rohmer classic now in repertory run at the theater. She stops, pauses long enough to take it in, then it’s off for a brief chat. Even in her late 80s she is always on the move, but always with one foot in the past.
Looking back on your old work must be strange for you, given that you’ve said you don’t particularly like nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.
What do you mean? Who says I don’t like nostalgia? But no, I’m not into nostalgia. It’s a nice feeling but I don’t miss what already happened. I’m not nostalgic.
One of the ideas running through this series is an argument for looking at documentaries and non-fiction films as something more than mere journalism. Your own films tend to blend fact and fiction, no matter what side they’re on.
In some of my fiction films I deal with reality as much as I can. I don’t have a big separation between my fictions and my documentaries. They mix a little bit. In my documentaries I try to give so much importance to the people I film. I make them look so good, because I take the time to listen to them. In the editing I take their best words. They look like characters in fictions, sometimes. People says, “Oh, I love that character!” I say, “No, that’s a real person.” I made films like “Vagabond,” which is a fiction. The characters were written, the interviews were pre-written. So it’s a total fiction. But it looks real because I have a sense of the texture of reality. In documentaries I’m at the service of the subjects. I’m the go-between. I have the power of editing, but it’s not my talent that’s in those films. It’s the people themselves.
In addition to jumping between documentary and fiction, you’ve also jumped between feature films and short works.
Many directors, they use the short film like a step to go to feature length. Very few go back to shorts. I did. I did two films in ’87 with Jane Birkin. One [“Jane B. by Agnes V.”] is a very strange portrait, an imaginary biopic. She speaks, we have excerpts of her films, we go about with her. Then there is a film called “Kung-Fu Master!”, but it’s not kung-fu. … They’ve been picked up by Cinelicious, a company in Los Angeles. They will open. It’s a bubble coming out of the past, but it’s a nice bubble. Jane Birkin is a wonderful woman, and I like the idea that she can be seen again when she was young.
A lot of your films have you collecting, or gleaning, things that you see, with your camera. Doing that is so much easier; anyone can capture what they see with great ease with their smartphone. Have you taken to technology?
I have an iPhone, I have an iPad. But I’m not on Facebook. It gets on my nerves. But people who know me know everything I do, because of Facebook. Christa Fuller, the widow of [filmmaker Samuel Fuller], she’s a Facebook fanatic. She took a picture of me and now it goes all over. It’s a big spying system.
You were a photographer who moved into filmmaking, and now you’ve moved into visual art and installations. Do you feel you might return to film?
I will do images again. Next month I will try to make something with lots of special effects. It’s a short thing but it’s something I’d like to do. I’m a very curious person. I’m curious about new things. So I really want to do something with special effects. I saw an incredibly good one at the Bjork show [at MoMA]. Did you go?
Not yet. What did you think?
It’s very interesting. I love the idea of art as expanding. It’s not just painting and sculpture. There is a museum near my place in Paris called La Fondation Cartier. It’s an art foundation for contemporary art, but one day they made an exhibition about mathematics. I think it’s good that they aren’t being narrow. The Bjork show is really beautiful, really interesting. She has images in Japanese, she looks like a warrior, she has science fiction costumes. She represents herself in so many different ways.
You’ve come back to New York many times. Are there things you particularly miss that are no longer here?
I was looking for O’Neals, which was here for 40 years. And it has disappeared. They took it down. Now it’s another restaurant. It’s not bad, but why did they take O’Neals? [Chuckles] It had a charm; it had a lot of photos. I remember that place vividly. I also remember The Mayflower Hotel. So bizarre — vaguely old but a lot of charm. I’m not nostalgic, but you have to notice that things have changed definitively. I think, oh, it’s no longer there. But I’m still here. How come?
Several of Varda's films will screen during the Art of the Real series at Lincoln Center through April 26. Visit the site for the full list of remaining programs.