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.
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.