REVIEW: Les plages d’Agnès [The Beaches of Agnès] [2008]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 110 minutes | Release Date: December 17th, 2008 (USA)
Studio: Les Films du Losange / The Cinema Guild
Director(s): Agnès Varda
Writer(s): Agnès Varda

“I feel pain everywhere”

I think it should be a new rule that documentaries about filmmakers can only be made if the subject him/herself directs. How could you not want this enforced after watching Agnès Varda‘s Les plages d’Agnès [The Beaches of Agnès]? It surely helps that the Frenchwoman is candid, funny, and fearless when it comes to combining whatever she has into one cohesive whole. As she says: her movies are puzzles with many disparate pieces strewn about that find themselves coming together in the end. If some footage is widescreen and some digital full-frame, who cares about making them consistent? If one of her interviewees doesn’t want to be shown onscreen (Chris Marker), why not let him be a cartoon cat named Guillaume with a distorted voice instead?

This is Varda’s life. She’s led a wild one with amazing highs alongside famous people you’d accuse anyone else of name-dropping when casually stating how, “Jean-Luc Godard let me photograph him without his dark glasses on.” Agnès cannot look as though she is anything but a kind, gentle, compassionate woman way too spry for her age with an inextinguishable spark of intelligence in her eyes. She worked with legends, married a master director like herself, raised two children, prolifically filmed to the point where staying by beau Jacques Demy‘s bedside as he succumbed to AIDS meant she had camera in-hand, and remembers everything through the objects she’s collected and people she’s touched. Her interactions prove one simple truth: to meet her is unequivocally to love her.

That’s what The Beaches of Agnès does. It introduces an artist you wish was in your life because she finds a way to bring out the beauty in everything. She’s strong-willed and passionate about causes as evidenced by footage of her protesting. She’s loyal to loved ones as proven by her refusal to talk about Demy’s illness or bisexuality since he refused to talk about them in life. She knows what she wants and doesn’t dwell in the past. There are stacks of letters from her daughter Rosalie‘s father locked in a drawer with no interest in reading again. And she accepts a nice couple’s offer to see the home she grew up in before they sell as a venue to tell stories, not to relive her youth.

It’s intriguing to see that her glimpses back say more about the future than they do the past. These events shaped her life and continue to form the foundation of whom she is today moving forward. Listening to her talk about Mur murs‘ genesis stemming from following Demy to America infers on her silence towards questions about his death. Stories about her time at Cannes during Cleo from 5 to 7‘s run as an anonymous face amongst celebrities explains the self-deprecation and affable nature of the woman on film relying the tale. She may have worked with Gérard Depardieu, Jane Birkin, and Charlotte Gainsbourg (shown so young in one film clip) and befriended Marker, Jim Morrison, and Andrée Vilar, but they are mere humans in her world.

More might be said about the auteur from her generosity in singling out the assistants holding mirrors on the beach for visual credit as opposed to textual credit than is by her recounting memories. We learn about her style; why she moved from photography to film; the love built between she, Demy, their son Mathieu, and Rosalie; and her ability to win over strangers and ensure they’re souls to cherish onscreen and in life. It’s great hearing her speak about her characters and suddenly have the spark of recognition that they were in fact fictionalized versions of her. No wonder she shifted between fictional narrative and documentary so easily—the line separating the two forms blurs to reveal how they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

And speaking of mirrors, it’s also inspiring to see Varda continue to experiment despite the film being something so simple as an oral history of her own life. Having reason to return to the beach that houses the casino her father would spend hours within is one thing, setting up an elaborate series of reflective windows to capture herself, surfers, and the tide is a complete other. She sets up an outdoor office in the sand at one point too, everyone with a computer and a bathing suit before the rain begins to fall. It again recalls a moment from her past—the time she pulled a gigantic extension cord out her mail-slot to utilize her own electricity when interviewing neighbors for the film Daguerréotypes.

The result’s an intimate self-portrait wherein subject/director even forgot she was being filmed—a brief outtake where she’s cleaning her mouth with a napkin soaked in coffee is wonderfully left in. The brooms have mounted yet 2008’s Agnès Varda on celluloid has the same smile and vitality as the young girl in photographs from the War. It’s as though no time has passed despite so much happening. People have grown, some have died, and others remain to be surprised by what she’s found. At one point she sets up an elaborate event where two men push a projector and screen on a cart only to discover the father they’d never seen outside of static photographs come to life before them in light. It’s impossible not to be moved.

That’s the power of cinema and why Varda loves it so. If we learn anything from this film it’s that those who have seen her work already know who she is. She puts herself onscreen in her stylistic choices, the questions asked in documentaries, and the characters created to be her stand-ins. It’s a revelation she experienced when filming the life of her Jacques as he watched from the sidelines—literally seeing his life flash before his dying eyes. Artists always put a little of themselves in their art and Varda now merely compiles those instances with personal narration to prove the fact. She’s for all intents and purposes immortal, her essence forever burned into cinematic history to revisit and admire for generations to come.

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