(2008) dir. Agnès Varda
It’s been a little over a year since I saw Agnès Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), which I had long planned to see, but in that year, and largely from inspiration of seeing that film, I have caught a few more of her earlier films and have grown to really like and appreciate her work. Varda is perhaps most famous for being the lone female director who was associated with the French New Wave, in particular her films Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Le bonheur (1965). But when I had read about The Beaches of Agnès, her autobiographical documentary, I was pretty excited to see it.
It’s hard not to think of this film without considering The Gleaners and I, because that film seems to have kicked off a renaissance of sorts for Varda, who fell in love with the light, mobile, digital camera that she used to make a documentary, freed from much of the production requirements of a big shoot and allowed to find this particular voice, this same voice with which she turns the camera upon herself.
The film opens with the first of many staged installation-like settings, on a beach with a multitude of various old mirrors set to reflect at angles and vantages. This is one of her two large metaphors for the work of this film: she is reflecting upon herself, liking the mirrors, as she does personally, but also comparing the interior being of hers to that of a beach, being that her life has so long revolved around or near them. She also spends time in many of these settings walking backwards. For her, self-reflection or at least a dwelling upon the past is not a comfortable habit, but God knows she has the material for it.
She looks back to her childhood, born in Belgium, and raised in parts of France, partially during WWII, to her experience as an 18-year old, traveling to the south and taking a job repairing fishing nets. It is after this that she studies photography and begins to develop her interest in the world of both still and moving images. Her approach is largely chronological, light, humorous, flitting, full of play and puns and visual jokes. In some ways, these two films (of hers that I have seen) have the most pronounced “voice”, literally too because she narrates them.
One has to wonder, now that Varda is 82 and has made films about both her life and the life of her late husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy, whether this is the end cap to her career, some final comment cinematically at least. Her life is certainly interesting, from the provincal beginnings to the Cannes and other film festival awards, living briefly in California, marriage, children, social activism, and art. She is a lovely character, fun and funny, someone that you’d love to spend an afternoon with.
Another thing that struck me was that how in Hollywood, only this very year, it was the first time that a woman was ever recognized by the establishment (the Oscars) as Best Director and how Varda (who was hardly the first important female filmmaker) started making films in the 1950’s and had won international acclaim by the 1960’s. It’s truly shocking that women haven’t had more opportunities for recognition, even 50 years later, that such a trailblazer, who blazed a trail more out of happenstance than pure drive, would be still such an anomaly.
For me, The Gleaners and I is still a preferred film, in that its play and discovery are so fresh, and while not like jazz in the literal sense, it is also freeform and flowing and clever. The Beaches of Agnès also has great charm and character, though much the same character as the other film. The subject matter is both more singular and more expansive, heart-warming, largely, but less “new”. And I have renewed my vows to watch more of her films this year.