THE BEACHES OF AGNÈS
an essay by amy taubin
Varda began as a still photographer and she has continued to take and exhibit still images throughout her life. Her first film, La Pointe Courte, (1954) was a feature-length love story, set in Sete, the French seaside city where she spent her adolescence. At the time, she said she had seen fewer than a dozen movies. With its mix of professional and non-professional actors, its elegant black- and-white cinematography, its near-ethnographic depiction of the daily life of people who make their living from the sea, La Pointe Courte is a ground-breaking film and arguably the first film of the French New Wave. By the time she made her second feature, the even more radical Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), that astonishing movement had already fostered more than a half dozen of the greatest and most prolific filmmakers in the world among them, her friends and colleagues, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Jean Luc Godard, and her husband from 1962 until his death in 1990, Jacques Demy. Often dubbed “the mother” or even “the grandmother,” of the New Wave, Varda, more accurately, was “the sister,” the only woman in that illustrious company, and a feminist to boot. In her films she takes the side of women, presenting them, not as beautiful, dangerous, unknowable objects of desire, but as complex, intelligent, vulnerable, and desirous human beings.
Over the past two decades, Varda has focused almost entirely on documentaries, including two portraits of her late husband (The Universe of Jacques Demy and the aforementioned Jacquot de Nantes) and another of her friend and frequent star, Jane Birkin (Jane B by Agnes V.) She has also been involved in the restoration and DVD packaging of her own and Demy’s films. And she has begun to make museum and gallery installations. As she quips in The Beaches of Agnès, she has gone “from being an old filmmaker to a young artist.” To attract visitors to her installation at the Venice Biennial, she dressed as a talking potato.
Varda’s way of working took a remarkable turn with the The Gleaners and I (2000.) Shot with lightweight digital cameras, it is an intimate look at people who, out of economic necessity and/or ecological/philosophical beliefs, collect and derive their sustenance from the detritus of an affluent society. While making The Gleaners, Varda began to regard her own collecting and culling of images—the processes of shooting and editing—as a form of gleaning. The subject of the film is thus both the gleaners and the filmmaker. At one point she turns the camera she’s holding in one hand on her other hand, examining it in close-up as if it were an alien thing—the experience that many of us have when we catch a glimpse of our own mortality written on skin that has become lined and marked with age spots. Nearly ten years later and approaching her 80th birthday, she decided that it was time to write her own autobiography as cinema.
She begins, where else, on one of the beaches of her childhood, instructing a crew made up of men and women, most of them two or three generations younger than she is, where to set up props and mirrors and picture frames. From the first, she shows us that this will be a film of reflections within reflections, a linking of memory to the excavation of existing images and the creation of new ones. The shifts—between photos and clips from the films she made over the course of nearly 60 years on the one hand, and, on the other, recreations in which others play Varda or Varda plays herself as a young or middleaged woman—are so fluid that they seem made up on the spot. She traces her story in fairly linear fashion but the movie also has a crazy quilt quality. Memories, she says, are like flies swarming through the air. As she speaks we see a tableau vivant recreation of Manet’s Olympia, the painting that prophesized the coming of modernism and feminism through the gaze of an odalisque who coolly stares down the spectator as if she knows she has the upper hand. Varda’s Olympia attracts flies. Is she covered in honey? Is she a Venus flytrap? A dozen interpretations are possible.
“It’s a little like putting together a puzzle,” Agnes V. explains to Jane B., who counters, that “even when you dump out all the pieces, you only reveal a little bit.” But however little, make no mistake, it must have taken enormous courage to make this film. At first Varda gives herself the protection of playing a role, “a little old lady, pleasingly plump and talkative, telling her story.” Soon, however, the comic persona falls away, and there is Varda, fighting back tears as she explains that most of the subjects in an exhibit of her photos are dead. Sadder still is her evocation of her life with Demy, and how in his final months, she directed the film about his childhood that he no longer had the strength to bring to the screen. But if there is much sadness, there is also much joy and excitement. The film is a veritable emotional roller coaster, its cast of characters, many of them evoked in a single photograph, remarkable. Look, there’s Godard without his dark glasses, the expression in his eyes unguarded and startlingly tender. Look, there’s Fidel, still buoyed by his victory in the Sierra Maestra. Look, there’s Harrison Ford grinning like he had nothing to lose because almost no one believed he had a future in the movies. Look, there are Black Panthers marching in Los Angeles and French women marching for abortion rights. Varda was among the 343 “bitches” that signed the petition demanding a woman’s right to control her own body.
Toward the end of The Beaches of Agnès, Varda’s friends throw her a surprise 80th birthday party. Afterwards, she turns the camera on herself. Is she completely alone or is someone else operating the camera, and in that sense keeping her company? No way to know for sure. “It all happened yesterday,” she tell us, in those four words evoking the party and also the 80 years of her life. “It’s already in the past, a sensation imbued instantly in the image, which will remain. While I live, I remember.” And we too will remember her in her images and ourselves through them as well.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor for Film Comment and Sight and Sound magazines and a frequent contributor to Art Forum. She is the author of Taxi Driver in the BFI’s Film Classics series. Her critical essays are included in many collections. From 1987 and to 2001 she was a film critic for the Village Voice where she also wrote a pioneering column about independent film titled Art and Industry. She teaches at the School of Visual Arts in NYC.