Summer 2010 Film Series
Number 1: The Beaches of Agnes (dir. Agnes Varda, 110 mins, 2009, French)
Rating: 5 out of 5.
While watching your latest film, The Beaches of Agnes, I felt a strange sensation. This was an inexplicable mixture of sadness and joy, both together. I felt uplifted, as if borne on wings, and at the same time, a gnawing melancholy. You begin the film by walking on a beach, straight towards us (and the camera) and you say you are just “a little old lady, pleasantly plump.” The ease with which you say it makes it clear that you believe it, that that is just what you are. No one will say any different, but I’m sure, others will add more to that statement: artist, filmmaker, photographer. You might be plump, and you might be little, but there is very little to show that you are old. Even on your 80th birthday (as we see in the film), you are just as sprightly and active as I assume you were back in the 1950s when you were making your first films. But first, the joy.
There is something strangely beautiful in just watching you walk backwards across the beach, taking us with you on your long and varied career, from photographing Fidel in Cuba to winning the Golden Lion at Venice for your film Vagabond, it is all there. But this film is not just a retrospective, it is not an autobiography either. It is a portrait, lovingly and painstakingly created, not just by yourself, but by everyone around you. From your children to your husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy, who was such an essential part of your life, as we see in this film. You have inspired my love for reflections, from the very first moment I saw Cleo from 5 to 7 and your use of mirrors, I knew I wanted to do something similar. And you use multiple mirrors in this new film. There is one scene that sticks in my memory, where you are looking at a picture of yourself as a child, and the picture is in a frame on the beach and as you reach out and pluck the photograph and behind it is a mirror, and you are reflected in it. I couldn’t think of a better analogy for aging.
But that is just one memorable scene. There are so many others. Like that scene where you sail alone down the Seine, or the one where you shoot the same fishermen you shot close to 50 years ago in La Pointe-Courte, only they were children then, and you show them their film, on a projector balanced on a cart and wheeled through the nighttime streets of La Pointe Courte. I doubt you knew then that you were almost inventing the French New Wave, years before your friend Jean-Luc Godard would shock the world with Breathless. Its been a long and wonderful journey since then. On to Cleo from 5 to 7, a wonderfully vivid mediation on time to Vagabond, a revelatory portrait of a woman to The Gleaners and I, where you celebrate the lives of these men and women who survive on the waste of an affluent society, some do it by choice, others by necessity, but you don’t privilege one over the other, for after all, you are a gleaner yourself, and this film, The Beaches of Agnes, is a gleaning of your own works.
Along with your friends Godard, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker (who appearance in the film is one to be celebrated), you gave us films that the New Wave did not dare to. Godard too, despite being the frontrunner of the New Wave, I would like to think, belongs in your haloed presence. Jacques Demy, your late husband, was a part of that New Wave and although, personally, I prefer your films to his, he must’ve had a great influence on your life and work. Even now, when you talk about him on camera, there are tears in your eyes and it chokes me up. And now on to the sadness.
Chris Marker’s regular stand-in, Guillame-en-Egypte, and Varda
It isn’t just Demy who has passed on. When you talk about your friends and the people you idolised and worked with, there is a sadness that I cannot finger. It is the sadness of passing, and it is a passing that is irreversible. As your memories unfold, we cannot help but see how far you’ve come, and although you never acknowledge it, there is a passing that is nearing for you too. For we must all die, and I don’t think this dying scares you in the least, not as much as Demy’s death must have. There is no inkling that this is your final film and I don’t expect it to be. It is simply an artist who has come to terms with her life and her work and realised the necessity to remember. For this film is not a biography, like I said earlier, it is an outpouring of memory, of people, places, and all that has touched you. “If you open people, you’ll find landscapes. If you open me up, you’ll find beaches,” you say bashfully, unconsciously as if you were uttering a banality but the poignancy of your words are not lost on me.
There is a scene where you are dancing on the beach with your family, your children and grandchildren. All of them in white while you are alone in black. It is a wonderful image, you surrounded by all those you love and who love you, dancing as if you hadn’t a care in the world. This celebration is your celebration and a celebration of you. And it is not just your children and grandchildren who celebrate with you, but all of us, when we watch this scene, we cannot help but celebrate you. If the film had ended here, I would’ve been happy, but you take us further, to your own surprise 80th birthday party. It is finally the end, and you sit alone in a room, facing the camera and you say, so simply, “While I live, I remember.” It is a haunting beautiful end to a wonderful beautiful film. While you live, you remember and even when you don’t, we will. There will be no forgetting, while we live, we shall remember.
For Roger Ebert’s review of The Beaches of Agnes, go here: link.
There is currently an Agnes Varda retrospective on The Auteurs. There are many rare and unavailable films (courtesy Criterion, I’m sure). Go here: link.
Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina guest star in a short film-within-a-film in Cleo from 5 to 7: