Agnès Varda

03.10.09

Left: Agnès Varda, Les Veuves de Noirmoutier (The Widows of Noirmoutier), 2004, still from a 35-mm film, 9 minutes 30 seconds. Right: View of Les Veuves de Noirmoutier, Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, 2006.


The inimitable director Agnès Varda is widely known for her films––the French New Wave classic Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) and The Gleaners and I (2000) are just a few. Here she speaks about her exhibition at Harvard’s Sert Gallery in the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, which opens March 12. Concurrent with the exhibition, the Harvard Film Archive will devote a week of programming to her groundbreaking films, including her most recent undertaking, The Beaches of Agnès (2008), which opens at Film Forum on July 1.

THIS IS MY FIRST INSTALLATION in the United States, and it makes me very happy. Dominique Bluher, a lecturer in Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies program, was in France in 2006 for a seminar about my work, and she saw the major solo exhibition I had at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris, which featured seven or eight installations. She decided to show one of them, my 2004 work The Widows of Noirmoutier, at the Carpenter Center, and things began to fall into place.

The exhibition in Paris was titled L’ile et Elle (The Island and She) and was completely inspired by and shot on the island of Noirmoutier, which is located off the west coast of France, not far from Nantes where my husband Jacques Demy shot Lola [1961]. We spent time lot of time there near the ocean in a windmill that worked until the 1960s. Jacques passed away in 1990, but I still go there with my children and my grandchildren. Since this is an island with many sailors and fishermen there are, perhaps even more than elsewhere, a lot of widows around, including myself. I started to think about how I could express and share that.

In the middle of the installation, there is a 35-mm film of women on the beach, all dressed in black and moving around a large table. Fourteen monitors surround this film, and there are fourteen seats in front of the installation. On each of the seats there is a set of headphones. You can only listen to one video at a time, and in each a widow speaks to you for about three or four minutes.

It’s very touching because the widows are all very different from one another. One is an older woman who has been a widow for over twenty years, another one has just lost her man recently and she’s still very upset by it. All the women speak about loss and missing their husbands. I filmed their faces and sometimes their beds, or their hands holding an image of their late-husband. I wanted to be alone with them while filming to make them feel more confident.

The videos are looped, so perhaps after listening to one widow, you’ll take another chair and another set of headphones and listen to another. Viewers tend to pass the headphones and switch chairs frequently; you get the sense you’re listening to one woman alone in the room, but you’re really in a group of people the entire time. If you don’t put on the headphones or sit down, then the fourteen videos just appear to be silent and you don’t hear anything but the ocean and a violin from the central film.

For this installation, and in all of my installations, I have tried to create another way for an audience to watch films. I plan to make many more video installations in the future. I’m about to have another exhibition in Séte, a city in the south of France. I’m creating three works for that show. I’ve been making films for so long, for over fifty years now, but I really think I have two paths of work––cinema and installation. They overlap, of course. My installations use films and, one might say, my recent film––Les Plages d’Agnès––is a kind of installation.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler