La rive gauche, Part 2

Dec 1, 2006

We left St-Michel feeling uplifted and took a nice stroll south, past the Closerie des Lilas, the restaurant made famous by Hemingway, and through the Luxembourg gardens, where a film crew was laying dolly tracks and fitting counterweights on a small crane. There were no huge campers or craft-service trucks, no roped-off barricades of orange cones and police tape or PAs with squawking walkie-talkies. Making a film here seems as natural as shopping for bread or training the cascades of chrysanthemums that tumble from urns over the walls of the garden. We kept walking south, down past the cemetery and into the sleepy fourteenth, when we arrived finally at a little street called the rue Daguerre.

This perfectly Parisian enclave, practical and casual and very vividly alive, is the world of Agnès Varda. I had a sense of it from a lovely film she made called Daguerreotypes, but being there brought the film to life for me, much more than the other way around. This self-sufficient one-way street is a neighborhood unto itself, not trendy or hip in the least, just a pleasing mix of traditional French storefronts—the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—interspersed with a couple of Southeast Asian food shops, a few clothing stores, and a remarkable representation of traditional craftspeople. Here you will find the cobbler and the chair-caning workshop, and over there, in that vitrine, is the neighborhood filmmaker. You will know her by the poster for Le bonheur in the window and the case of DVDs of Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) just inside the door.

The scene is at once ordinary and bizarre, but it makes perfect sense. Here is the quintessential independent filmmaker, often credited with directing the first film of the French new wave (La pointe-courte), and she has set herself up much like the other artisans up and down the street. You could walk in off the street and buy a DVD, but it is not exactly a store. Just inside the door is an editing table, not an old-fashioned museum piece, but a working piece of equipment (when we walked in there was an intertitle up on the screen, something about cinematographer Willy Kurant and Varda’s 1966 feature Les créatures). Across the room is a very contemporary digital editing rig, also actively in use, with footage intended for a project Agnès says will have to be a secret until February. She asked us for a bit of patience as they were about to film a shot—did we mind? Of course not. “We’ll start outside,” she said, and then to us, “Just stay behind the camera.” And for her it is that simple. They traipsed across the street, no worries about permits or traffic or passersby, and made the shot: three people crossing a street. “Too fast,” she said. “We’ll do it again.” And then inside the shop for another shot (just a moment to set a single light). And it was done. “Now we have lunch.”

Just across the way, through a small door, is a dining room, perfectly sized for a table for six. In the adjoining room we stopped for a moment and sank into comfortable antique chairs covered in burgundy fabric, amid neat piles of books all around. In a discreet case nearby, Fumiko noticed a veritable menagerie of those dancing bears cavorting. We talked for a little while about the death of Phillipe Noiret, and about the films of Bertrand Tavernier, whom Agnès had seen at the funeral, and especially Coup de torchon, before Agnès said, “Are we ready to eat?” Agnès is known for her cooking, but this day, because she was working, she had someone helping out. “She has something to do at the last minute with the vinegar and the sugar. We must respect the timing of the kitchen.”

In the dining room, we are joined by Rosalie, Agnès’s daughter with Jacques Demy, and Cecilia, who has worked with Agnès for years. Ciné-Tamaris, as her company is called, has the feeling more of a collective or a family, and inevitably her family has been swept up in the creative ferment. Rosalie has served as a costume designer from time to time both on Agnès’s films and her father’s, and their son Matthieu is an actor who first appeared on-screen at the age of five, in Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. Like this lunch, everything around Agnès is handmade of honest materials and of uncompromisingly high quality. For all the straightforwardness and simplicity of her life and working style, she is a meticulous, sophisticated, and hardheaded thinker. The conversation ranged from DVD supplements and restoration to the difficulty of color-correcting a scene in Peau d’âne, one in which director Jacques Demy created a dress out of the material used for movie screens, then projected film of blue sky onto it. Eventually, maybe inevitably, the conversation turned to politics and children and community and all the ordinary things that make life meaningful. Agnès has brought them all together here, and there is really no reason for her to leave this pretty street, tucked away safely, where the can-do spirit of the French new wave is alive and well.

We had two other meetings that day, and four more yesterday, and it is all becoming a blur. In a few minutes I'll be boarding a plane for New York. I am exhausted and looking forward to getting home to my son and my wife and our new baby. Fumiko will be staying on for another week, joined by our technical director, Lee Kline, to make a round of HD masters for future releases. For my part, as much as I love Paris, I can't wait to get home to my kitchen, where I have some experiments to do, including one that requires a little vinegar and a dash of sugar just at the last minute.

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