LOS ANGELES -- For most artists, winning an honorary Academy Award would mark the culmination of a long and extraordinary career. Few careers in any field are as long or extraordinary as that of Agnes Varda, but as she sits down at Le Parc Suite in West Hollywood, the 89-year-old Brussels-born, Paris-based director greets the prospect of her accolade more or less the same way that she greets everything else -- with great equanimity, mild perplexity and a winsome sense of humor.
With her duo-tone pageboy haircut, her diminutive stature and her wonderful openness to new experience, Varda would be an enchanting screen presence even if she were not also one of the world's most innovative filmmakers. Often described as "the godmother of the French New Wave," though she is more properly thought of as a member of the Left Bank movement, she made her feature directing debut with "La Pointe Courte" (1955), a portrait of a crumbling marriage set in a Mediterranean fishing village, steeped in documentary and neorealist techniques.
She followed that with the real-time landmark "Cleo From 5 to 7" (1962), which, along with later standouts like "Vagabond" (1985), her daringly nonlinear study of a female drifter, confirmed her implicit, forthright feminism as well as her desire to advance the language of the medium. Over the past several decades, she has never lost her flair for mixing things up -- color and black-and-white, video and film, documentary and narrative, past and present. While she has said that her latest documentary "Faces Places," a richly empathetic tour of rural French life co-directed with the 34-year-old visual artist JR and currently playing at Laemmle's Royal Theatre, will be her last theatrical feature, it's hard to imagine that adventurous magpie spirit abating anytime soon.
Q: You've spent quite a bit of time in Los Angeles before this.
A: I love the city. I came here for the first time with (my husband) Jacques Demy in '67, and I made a film in '68 called "Lions Love ( ... and Lies)," with Viva, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who had written "Hair." So it's really the hippie time, and it was an incredible liberation because everything was free, men had beautiful shirts with flowers, everybody loved everybody. Then I came back here 10 years later and I made "Mur Murs," about the murals. In 1980, nobody spoke about street art. Thirty-five years later, it's everywhere. The street artists are famous now. I love the people in Los Angeles.
Q: And now you're back in L.A. to accept an honorary Oscar.
A: A "side Oscar." Honorary, yes. What is honorary? I have received an honorary Cesar. I have received an honorary Palme d'Or in Cannes. So it's like the academy is saying, "That old lady has been working so continuously for cinema, at some point we should recognize that she worked." I feel like it's recognition of my decent work. I made my first film, "La Pointe Courte," in 1954, a radical film. How could somebody think that one day I would be recognized by the Hollywood world? This is strange for me. Do they give four little Oscars (to the honorary winners)? Or are they the same size?
Q: I think they're the same size.
A: Are they half-finished-size Oscars? Because the ceremony is held in November, and not in February or March? Do we have to give a little speech, even if we're at tables? I know Angelina Jolie will be the one to present the award to me. She's an incredible, interesting woman. She has not only the talent of acting, but she has a position in life that I like about her. I'm very feminist, as you know, as everybody knows. So the position she takes regarding women, children and her own stardom -- she uses this in a very interesting way.
Q: What does winning an honorary Oscar mean for you and your career at this point?