I haven’t seen any films by Agnés Varda, but seeing her 2008 film The Beaches of Agnés, I wanted to see more. The film won a best documentary Cesár Award. Not bad for someone just turned 81 this May and was filming her autobiography.
The film begins with a woman (Varda) walking backward on a beach at twilight. In the voiceover, Varda narrates (in French with English subtitles), “I’m playing the role of a little old woman, pleasantly plump and talkative…” and she goes on to say that she’s interested in filming the same things other people want to film: people who intrigue her, who disconcert her, and who fascinate her. She then explains the title: “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes; if we opened me up, we’d find beaches.”
The film was shot between August 2006 and June 2008 in Belgium at La Panne Beach, in and around Sete including La Corniche Beach, in Los Angeles at Venice Beach and Santa Monica Beach, in Noirmoutier Island at La Guérnière Beach, and in Paris where a “beach” was created.
Varda was born in 1928 to a Greek father and a French mother in Brussels, Belgium (the first beach). She became a director, screenwriter, editor, actor, and photographer. When she produced her first film in 1954, La Pointe Courte, she was one of the few women directors in France and, according to her film, the only woman who was part of the French New Wave. She would eventually marry fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy who died of AIDS in 1990.
Yet this film is not a literal history of her life, but a self-portrait that is part performance art (Varda sometimes appears with her white hair partially dyed dark red, with the shining white like a little cap in the middle), part installation, and part documentary of the making of these performances and installations. In the first sequence, Varda gathered a group of students from the Ecole de Cinéma in Louvain to transport dozens of large mirrors and set them up on the beach. The beach also serves as a display for some black and white family photos. Varda also shows clips of the past which include a young Catherine Deneuve in the movie that brought her stardom—Demy’s 1964 Les Parapluies de Cherbourg as well as Varda’s 1969 Les Creatures, a young Harrison Ford in a screen test, then a more recent shot of him reflecting on how he was once told by studio executive to give up acting, and a young Gerard Depardieu as a thieving hippie in her 1970 Nausicaa.
There are also the less famous: neighbors, friends, and the sons of neighbors and friends, part of her creative family. We revisit two young boys that she filmed who are now old men. Roger Ebert considered this work not so much a biography, but a “treasured memories of friends” and a poem to a life well-lived.
Ebert suggests seeing Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, Les Creatures, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, Kung Fu Master, Daguerreotypes, Jacquot or The Gleaners and I. Her 1962 Cleo is about a French singer who believes she has cancer and is waiting for the results of her biopsy and her thoughts and the people she meets during her wait as she walks the streets of Paris. Some of these movies are about social issues. Vagabond is a dark 1985 movie about the final weeks of a young homeless woman via flashbacks. The 1977 One Sings, the Other Doesn’t depicts two women and their intertwining lives during the women’s movement in France. The Gleaners and I is a 2000 movie about people in France who go over the already harvested fields for leftover produce (turnips and potatoes), a topic Varda would return to two years later. In this respect as well as others, Varda was ahead of her time. Now we'd call it recycling and conservation. More personal is the memoir she filmed of her husband, finishing Jacquot only days before his death.
In this film, The Beaches of Agnés, Varda not only offers up her memories and her past accomplishments, but subtle suggestions about how to live life, suggesting that one can be a mother, a wife, a feminist, and a friend and still create. Perhaps this movie will stand as an inspiration to women and men of all ages who feel their dreams are limited because Varda even today doesn’t see being a woman or even being 80 as a limitation and she has the Cesar to prove it now.