Agnès Varda remembered by Jane Birkin

30 May 1928 – 29 March 2019
The actor and singer who was with the pioneering film director on the night she died recalls her as ‘an extraordinary bundle of curiosity and energy’

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I’d been to Agnès’s house and met her a few times but I only really got to know her after I wrote to her about the film Sans toit ni loi, starring Sandrine Bonnaire, about a girl tramp, to ask who was responsible for this heartrending film. Agnès rang me to say she couldn’t understand a word I’d written because my handwriting was so bad and suggested we meet so I could read her the letter.

We met in a park and there was little Agnès; although I don’t like walking or parks, that is what she wanted to do. She said she wanted to make a film with me but I was singing at the Bataclan and didn’t have time, so she said she’d follow me and film me for a year. I’m not sure she actually said a year, but that’s what it turned out to be.

We started out doing sketches for the film Jane B by Agnès V, which came out in 1987; she wanted me to be Joan of Arc, a poor Dickensian person… She even wanted me to dress as a Spanish dancer, which I didn’t want but did because this was part of our deal. I would do whatever she wanted and she would do what I wanted. And that was Agnès. She was so small but she was very bossy.

Agnès had the most extraordinary imagination. As soon as I thought we had finished the film, she would come up with another idea. Then I gave her a script I’d written about a young boy of around 15 who has a fixation on a 40-year-old woman. Agnès felt she had to honour my ideas so she made Kung Fu Master. Her son Matthew played the boy, I played the woman, and she asked my daughters Charlotte and Lou to also be in it. At the time Aids was in the headlines and she insisted we deal with it in the film. This was Agnès; she was very opinionated about things and if she was working on something and there was an issue that was current, she felt you had to mention it.

She had started out as a photographer and took black-and-white photos of all the French stars. Then she became one of the first women film directors. If you look at interviews she did back then her answers were funny and impertinent.

Agnès had an abundance of the curiosity gene and was always doing unexpected things like inviting me to Lyon for a film festival, and when all I wanted to do is go to a cosy hotel and put my feet up she arranged for us to sleep at the Lumière museum. So we slept in Louis Lumière’s room and the next morning Agnès was sitting on the bed with coffee and croissants saying: “Now you will never look at Lyon in the same way.”

Jane Birkin and Agnes Varda on the set of Kung Fu Master in 1988.
Jane Birkin and Agnes Varda on the set of Kung Fu Master in 1988. Photograph: Alamy

Another time we were on our way to a festival in north Africa and stopped off in Madrid. Again, I thought we’d wait for our next flight with our feet up in the first-class lounge, but Agnès insisted we see the Goyas and Velasquez at the Prado. We piled into a taxi and when we got to the Prado there was a long queue, but Agnès just walked to the front and pretended she had lost her group and they let her in. Today I can never think of Madrid without thinking of Agnès. She always knew the people who had keys and could let us into places even if they were closed. She was the sort of person who created memories.

She was very unexpectedly tender. When my mother died she would roll up in her little red car just to see if I was OK. She did the same when my eldest daughter, Kate, died. She would ring every week and pop by for a cup of tea.She was an extraordinary bundle of curiosity and energy and she was extraordinarily brave and uncomplaining. She had serious cancer, but she decided to stop the chemotherapy. She knew exactly what she was doing.

She was working up to the end and she did a film with the artist JR and this gave her a new lease of life. He brought out the best in her.

I was with her the night she died. Her daughter Rosalie called and said she wanted to say goodbye to all the people she loved and who loved her, so we gathered at her home. She had the most marvellous end of life. If anything she was more loved, well known, honoured and celebrated in old age than ever before.

Jane Birkin

The GuardianTramp

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