March 11, 2009
The Beaches of Agnès, 2008
A clear highlight in an already strong French cinema program this year is Agnès Varda's playful and understated, yet endlessly inventive The Beaches of Agnès. Part autobiographical survey from her childhood in wartime Europe to her lifelong activism (she self-effacingly admits that she missed the events of May 68 because she was living in California at the time, and instead got caught up in the Black Panther and anti-war movements), and part career retrospective of her body of work as photographer, New Wave filmmaker, documentarian, and artist, the film is also an incisive essay on the amorphous nature of memory and representation. This ambiguity is perhaps best illustrated in long-time friend and colleague, Chris Marker's tongue in cheek, pre-scripted Q&A session with Varda on her life and work, using a mediated appearance through his iconic cartoon avatar, Guillaume-en-Egypte - complete with a disembodied MacinTalk™ synthesized voice - to conduct an ironically "personal" interview with the filmmaker. For Varda, reflections on her debut film La Pointe-courte not only revisit historical intersections between real life (her teen-age years spent in the fishing village during the war) and fiction (alternating segments between the lovers and village life), but also reveal the fissures between past and present, as many of the villagers appearing in the film have since died (including a poignant episode involving a stand-in actor whose son, born after his death, would commemorate his legacy by accompanying a projection cart that is screening the film through town), their children now elderly, and the lead actor, Philippe Noiret, appearing in his first film, would succumb to cancer in 2006. Inasmuch as Varda remarks that the trajectory of her life may be traced through the physical and metaphoric geography of beaches - from family summer vacations in Calais on the coast of her native Belgium, to a life of exile in La Pointe Courte in Languedoc-Roussillon on the southeast coast of France, to Venice Beach in California where the family had settled after her husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy was invited to work in Hollywood - her legacy is also appropriately found in the transformation of the ephemeral to the physical: a convergence that is prefigured in the opening sequence of Varda experimenting with mirror angles that alternately recasts the film crew as both documenters and subjects in the film, and culminates with the ingenious shot of a prismatic tent composed of unspooled reels from Varda's commercially unsuccessful film The Creatures. The image - and implicitly, the past - once again becomes tangible and relevant, re-animated by the curious and impassioned eye of an ageless spirit.