“The Beaches of Agnès” (2008)
19 December 2010
I can only hope that when I’m 80 I’ll have the good humor and creativity to make an autobiographical documentary as delightful, visually rich, and oddly modest as Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès), which won the César Award for best documentary that year. She fills it with her own photographs and clips from her films, re-creations of tiny moments from her past, and whimsical stagings of props — for example, she uses a cardboard cutout of a car to show how the garage at the end of her alley in Paris was so tiny that it required her to make a 13-point turn (if everything went right) to manoeuver her car inside. Only slowly do you realize that the sum total of these flickering memories and scenes of her gently directing her young staff is more than just deeply moving; it’s a cinematic achievement of its own that seems akin to the most magical and innovative of documentaries, like Errol Morris’ Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.
The film takes a loosely chronological view of her life, from her early life on the coast of Belgium through her family’s houseboat existence during World War II, her work as a photographer in Paris in the late 40s and 50s, her long career in film, her marriage to director Jacques Demy. But it’s interspersed with moments simply revelatory of her sparkling personality: her unapologetic loves of cats and the water, her appreciation for great images and great actors, her enjoyment of working with young people, the way art infuses her with energy and life. As she paints in impressionistic strokes the path she followed, she gradually allows her dyed hair (styled, by long habit, in a bowl cut to exaggerate a face she describes as the shape of a pancake, and dyed a dark maroon) to return to its natural white. It’s a decision that does more than symbolize her seeming absence of egotism; it enhances that slight sense of melancholy that infuses moments of the film when she reminisces about family and friends long dead. By doing so, she references — but never dwells on — her own mortality. I can’t capture in words how much this aspect of the film is done gracefully and lightly; above all The Beaches of Agnès is an utter delight.
Netflix describes her as “the grandmother of the French New Wave,” but that’s slightly misleading and certainly not a claim the modest Varda would make. Sure, her early film La Pointe Courte (1954) was a precursor to the New Wave, and she certainly held her own when that boys’ club of Rohmer, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol et als ruled international cinema (the way she tells it, their success opened opportunities for her and others to follow). But she had her closest artistic ties to a filmmakers and writers such as Marguerite Duras and Chris Marker, sometimes called the Left Bank group — artists perhaps more experimental and less marketable than the Right Bank directors of The 400 Blows and Breathless. One need only think of her best-known films, such as Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and The Gleaners and I (2000), to recognize that she always sought to tell different stories (and, for that matter, to make different political points) than some of her male counterparts.
In the end I’m struck by her slightly self-mocking self-characterization: of a squat woman in a baggy dress with a pronounced nose and a bowl of hair that nearly conceals her enormous, curious eyes. Don’t be fooled. It won’t take long till you wish Varda was your mother, your granny, your boss, your friend, and your future self, all at once. It’s secretly a film about the love of life and art — and who couldn’t use a dose of that right now?