The Beaches of Agnes / Les plages d’Agnès
d. Agnès Varda / France / 2008 / 110 mins
Viewed at: Screen 3 @ Cinema City (Norwich, UK)
Agnès Varda: filmmaker, photographer, artist, call her what you will. You could even – as Observer critic Philip French did in his review of The Beaches of Agnes – call her the ‘token female’ amongst the boys club of the French Nouvelle Vague. But doing so would belie the sheer wealth of talent in her possession and her existence as one of that movements most interesting directors. Proof, perhaps, comes with the knowledge that she remains a stimulating directorial presence today, particularly with films like The Gleaners and I (2000), one of the best documentaries of the past fifteen years and a cinematic gem surpassed in many ways by The Beaches of Agnes, a glorious documentary self-portrait full of honesty, personality and gentle whimsy.
As ever, Varda is a constant pleasure on screen. There are very few filmmakers who could really pull off a feature length documentary about themselves without seeming heavily self-involved, violently narcissistic, or both. Varda is, most certainly, neither. She carries this film off with her own particular style of gently endearing whimsy, pulling the audience along like an eager child unleashed at a funfair.
At a steady, wonderful pace, Varda provides a scattershot narration of her life so far, taking us from her childhood playing on the streets in Brussels, to her Art History education at Ecole du Louvre, her fleeing to Corsica and her travails in Los Angeles accompanying her husband Jacques Demy. As you might expect, The Beaches of Agnes is populated with a cast of characters that have floated in and out of Varda’s life over the years, from Nouvelle Vague contemporaries like Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais to more unexpected faces like Bill Viola and Harrison Ford.
But it is the gentle whimsy of Varda that provides the film’s unifying element. And it isn’t a whimsy derived simply from a general desire to ‘entertain’, nor is it the result of some kind of childlike naïveté – indeed, Varda is acutely aware of her surroundings, across all distances and in all its nuance. Her whimsical demeanor comes, as this film testifies, with her own particular interests in the more playful aspects of Surrealist art and her own conceptual manifestations of the ‘surreal’, as it relates to language and the visual image. Interestingly – although, perhaps unsurprisingly – the topic of surrealism is not addressed directly during the film, essentially because it seems to be one of the few constant presences in Varda’s life. Surrealism seems to provide her with a consistency which is lacking in most other aspects of her existence: from the minute details of her various homes to the general vagaries of history, and – most tragically – the death of her husband, Jacques Demy in 1990.
In fact, a tendency towards the surreal tends to be a particular mark of the Nouvelle Vague in general and the Rive Gauche (Left-Bank) group in particular. Varda’s closest Rive Gauche ally, Chris Marker, shares something of her obsession with the surreal, appearing in The Beaches of Agnes as his alter ego, Guillaume the Egyptian Cat (c.f. image above), who is constantly shoving Varda’s narrative attentions towards his own particular fancies: Maoism, the Cuban Revolution, May ’68. As well as providing another level of surreality, Guillaume also provides a neat reflection of Varda’s own cats, a further source of consistency in an otherwise dizzying life.
An obsession with textual and intertextual in-jokery is another feature of The Beaches of Agnes, although its relationship to the surreal is by no means a suggestion that this is simple playfullness. Varda acutely displays the kind of worldly complexity that made her one of the finest (if most underrated) exports of the motley Nouvelle Vague bunch, consistently producing films with a subtle intricacy that goes beyond the rather more blunt abstractions favoured by her male counterparts, particularly Godard. Accompanying the outward whimsy is, of course, a deeper internal struggle for Varda, a yearning for her late husband, but also a broader heartache about the state of the world and the cruelty of man.
For Varda, the unifying symbol of her life is la plage (the beach), and it acts as both a physical and metaphorical reference point in this film. On a beach the tide comes and goes, the waves crash and the sand is displaced: its composite elements may differ from day to day, minute to minute, but it remains, as always, a beach. Over the course of eighty years, Varda has been touched by many waves from all directions, and like the grains of sand she has been displaced, moved into new physical and emotional spaces. But she has remained, as always, Agnès Varda.
And in many ways, this film could quite comfortably (and sufficiently) have been titled Agnès from 0 to 80. Indeed, Varda’s best known work – Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) – also hangs over this film in numerous subtle ways. Varda description of Cleo… as being about two different understandings of ‘time’ is another reflection of the beach analogy. Both films provide portraits of a particular woman at a particular moment in time, but they are also a comment on how those moments only exist because of their much wider existential experience of that time as a linear assault on mind and body.
The Beaches of Agnes might be a deeply personal film, but it is one that is constantly looking outwards, finding connections, drawing together disparate thoughts, embracing the world for all its weaknesses and in spite of its strengths. As such, more than a simple autoportrait or a cine-memoir, this is Varda’s ode to herself, to her life and to her work. It is a love letter to her late husband and a testimony for her grandchildren. It is a thank-you note to all the waves that have reached her shore.