Writer: Agnès Varda
Producer: Agnès Varda
by Jon Cvack
It was this past year that Agnes Varda came as close to entering the American Hollywood mainstream as at any point I can recall. Her latest film, Faces Places (which I haven’t yet seen), is the first to follow The Beaches of Agnes (2008), which is all the more impressive once I finished it. The first Varda film I had seen was The Gleaners and I (2000), viewed way too early in film school when I was hungry for the next Coen Bros, PTA, or Tarantino and couldn’t appreciate a relatively plotless documentary shot on cheap digital video about potatoes gleaners that led to something else I can’t remember (I also don’t think the teacher played the whole thing). It was moving onto both Cleo from 5-7 (1961; which Godard regarded as the first new wave film), Cinevardaphoto (2004), and finally revisited - and finished - The Gleaners and I that I understood the woman’s magic. Agnes Varda an artist first and a filmmaker second; and her films around a deep dive into a deeply imaginative and creative mind that sees the world differently than most.
The Beaches of Varda is Varda’s attempt at biography, providing a jittery, though more or less linear reflection on the life she lived. We open at the beach where she’s hired a young crew to help her position mirrors on a beach. Like most of Varda’s work, it seems too simple to work; again, shot on the cheap digital camera. And yet of course she somehow creates absolutely beautiful images that embody the idea she’s expressing; that memories provide a similar feature as mirrors on a beach. When positioned just right they allow the beauty of things past to creep in and fill an otherwise bland frame of mind.
We learn her fascinating history. She got into photography at an early age and developed a keen eye; working initially in the tourist photography trade (as so many start out in) before meeting a successful Parisian photographer who offer mentorship, allowing her work to achieve notoriety around the age of twenty. Still she lived a modest life, describing each event with a set piece; in this case how she’d have to pivot her car sixteen times back and forth in order to exit the alley told by having a 2D cardboard cut out of the VW bug which she operates by walking. Again, it’s simple and yet the effect is immediately relatable.
By the age of 25 she says she had only seen about ten films total - never all that interested in the art form - but that didn’t stop her from making La Pointe Courte (1955) which kicked off the French New Wave alongside such films as The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960); again, arguably the first film from the French New Wave, and Varda as the only female director to pioneer the movement. The film led her to make Cleo from 5 to 7 which gained her international notoriety.
She developed a lifelong marriage with New Wave director Jacques Demy whose The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) would be leading influences when Damien Chazelle conceived La La Land. The two would soon arrive in California; specifically Venice beach where they lived the Hollywood lifestyle. While Varda found it odd at times, they were able to conceive two kids who would follow in their artistic footsteps.
To describe the episodes is to diminish the effect of Varda’s style. Like any great abstract art, to try and put words to the work often sounds facile. Ebert’s favorite moment from the film was when Agnes showed two fisherman from the time of filming (2004) a clip she shot of them back in the 60s. Ebert defined it as the most poetic moment of cinema he’d ever seen. I actually forgot the scene, but that’s what makes her work so magnificent. Each fragment is so unique that I imagine every viewer - like past shared memories - would recall differing moments. One of my favorites involved a neighbor who gave Varda some old home footage of a house her and her family moved into, showing the the grand old farmhouse in grainy 16mm. It doesn’t last more than twenty seconds or so, but the fact that Varda so loved the art of film and memory that she included it out of appreciation spoke volumes to her soul. You get the impression she cares deeply for people; wanting to take all she experiences with them and the times they shared and express it to the best of her abilities; as though knowing it was a way to solidify the memory. To shift it like a mirror and catch the ocean.
In the end we learn that Jacques died only years prior and that she filmed his body both moments before and then after his death from AIDS; knowing it was an important moment to capture. It’s clear that Varda felt the end of days were near. To think she just created another critically acclaimed film at the age of 90 goes to show her power of spirit. She’s the type of filmmaker that never cared for the glitz and glamour. She wants to make art to the best of her ability and will likely continue to do so until her final days; whenever they come.
BELOW: Great PBS doc on Varda
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