Monday, October 12, 2009

The Beaches of Agnes





I like The Beaches of Agnès (Agnes Varda) for its modest qualities, and for its intoxicating approach to cinema, memory, life, and love as something like a puzzle. The film, a cinematic self portrait of director Agnès Varda, is ultimately impossible to firmly categorize. It's at least a start to say it flits between documentary/remembrance and fiction/invention with ease, and Varda carries with her reminiscences a gentle wisp of modernism that's refreshing in a film culture oversaturated with ironic pastiche. The film sneaks up on you with its profundities: it's like having a casual conversation with an old friend, or perhaps, given Varda's age, an especially thoughtful grandmother; then, at some point in the conversation, suddenly hitting on two or three things that seem to explain some very important part of the trajectories and textures of your entire life. The film combines footage and photographs from Varda's past along with scenes from her earlier movies (and those of her husband, Jacques Demy, whose relationship with Varda gives the second half of the film a loose structure, although not an exactly linear one, given that his death hangs over much of the film), and also contains present-day footage of the aging auteur. This is probably as good a film as Varda has ever made, and certainly the most moving autobiography of a film director I'm ever likely to see. I know it's the best movie I've seen so far in '09.


At first, it appears as if Varda is allowing her memories to unfold almost randomly, and she herself admits to a love for l'amour fou of Surrealism and the joy of automatic, unconscious plastic creation. At one moment we see her inside the belly of a large plastic whale on a beach (the beach is the recurring motif Varda uses to bridge her childhood to her present), an image whose motivation is located only in Varda's mind. The entire film feels as if, at almost any moment, it could veer off into any direction, prompted by almost any sense-memory; at one moment the camera looks outside into Varda's garden; the next the image of Demy, who passed away in the early 90s, is superimposed over the garden; and in the next, we see an impromptu film studio set up shot outside a street. But this is ultimately less a penchant for surrealist juxtapositions or an introverted Proustian aesthetics than a generous effort to extend her love (read: her film camera) to other subjects and human beings.

One of the recurring themes of this film is that one's autobiography is not to be found in the self, but through the self's contact with others. Very early in the movie Varda emphasizes that this movement to the other (this is, if my own memory serves, the phrase she uses) is what defines the self, and how the self becomes. This observation is matched, in turn and in visual rhyme, to another recurring motif in Beaches that would seem to tacitly ask the audience to extend their selves in a similar matter: Varda (or one of her subjects) walks into the background of the frame from the foreground (usually walking backwards, so the viewer can still see the face) as if to welcome the audience into the world of Varda's life and memories.

Clearly, then, her autoportrait won't have any meaning for her if she isn't allowed to share it, and let it grow, in the eyes of someone else. In this sense, the film is almost the opposite of Jean-Luc Godard's hermetic JLG/JLG (1995), a fascinating but opaque and severe self-portrait of the aging New Wave cineaste talking to himself on the shores of his home in Switzerland. In contrast, Varda's beautiful idea - in contradistinction to a lot of autobiographies, which by definition tend to be self-indulgent and selectively memorable - of using autobiography to expansively and unpredictably connect to others is stressed again and again in the movie. For example, Varda prizes photographs and moving images of her family (especially Demy). For her, it's cinema's ability to capture the movement of another human being, to animate the indexical trace of the figure in the photographic image - another sign of Varda's modernism, and also a reminder that she began as a photographer - that grants an experiential frame through which to tap into her memory. When her story comes to the New Wave, for example, she doesn't begin by including long anecdotes about any of her fellow filmmakers (with whom she was tangentially associated as a member of the Left Bank), instead preferring to spur her memories of them through still photographs of the group, scattered on the borders of her frame. (The images spur observations that give us little clues as to who these men were to Varda: at one moment, for example, she remarks that her Left Bank associate, Alain Resnais, had a classical handsomeness that belied his modernist, experimentalist aesthetic ethos). Her insistence on the importance of the photograph throughout extends to her use of old footage from her films, and of personal footage, including that of herself. Yet Varda knows her filmmaking friends have different sensibilities, and thus at other times her reliance on the photograph's bearing of truth is relaxed, when she lets the aesthetic personalities of others steal the show. Her reclusive friend Chris Marker, for example, did not want to be photographed. So Varda indulges Marker: instead of showing him, or even including his voice, she lets him hide behind a cardboard cutout of one of his trademark grinning cats, and then lets the cat almost take over the movie. (If handing over your self portrait to a grinning cartoon cat is not a sign of generosity, I do not know what is).

Despite the film's playful, free-associative bent, Varda neverthless emphasizes time and time again the importance of structure. Shots of her (and older footage of Demy) writing at a desk stress the important relationship of writing, narrative, and organization to experimentation. These have, in fact, always been important ingredients in the French New Wave mix; even if so many of the early New Wave films (Varda's included) give off the aura of youthful improvisation and on-the-cuff documentation, the New Wave is equally a cinema of writing and literature. So, too, for Varda (more so than the boys) is the New Wave a cinema of feminism and politics, but even here she goes beyond her self, and her nation: in the events in France in May '68, she was in Hollywood with Demy, but still thoughtful enough to capture the political efforts of Black Panthers and Vietnam War protesters with her camera.

But ultimately her film is not reducible to a single aesthetic strategy, nor to politics. Another expansive metaphor for Varda's aesthetic, one that encompasses all the others, suggests itself: architecture. In one striking shot near the end of The Beaches of Agnes, we see Varda sitting in an outdoor structure whose walls consist entirely of strips of 35mm celluloid (of a film she found abandoned in the trash of a film studio; her connection of cinema with a love for detritus is recalled from her 2000 film, The Gleaners and I). While sitting in this celluloid house, Varda tells us that, for her, cinema has been a kind of house she has lived in, and the remark - coming near the end of this particular film - is as deeply felt and lovingly thought through as anything I've seen in a movie theater. It's at this moment we realize how The Beaches of Agnes is that very house, one its maker has lovingly invited us to visit for an afternoon.

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