In 1956, François Truffaut wrote a short essay in Cahiers du cinema about La Pointe Courte, the first film by the then young photographer and art historian Agnès Varda. In his piece, Truffaut describes the film as “a cinematic essay, an ambitious experimental work” and claims: “If, by the nature of its ambitions, La Pointe Courte joins the family of films that are outside cinema… it is nonetheless superior to these because the result matches the director’s intentions.” Truffaut’s exacting summation of La Pointe Courte applies in a general sense to the extraordinary career of Varda, whose nonfiction work willfully and triumphantly reaches beyond cinema’s conventional borders.
Despite the heartily ambitious new terrain that has now begotten nonfiction filmmakers all over the world, at 81 years of age, Varda still creates films that stand apart. A fresh and innovative essay structure lies at the base of her newest film, The Beaches of Agnes, her most far-reaching and thoroughly autobiographical work to date. Yet, simply stated, “autobiography” is a misnomer. Playfully linking together experiences and memories, observations and thought, culminating in revelations that are far outside the limitations of a linear biography, The Beaches of Agnes may be Varda’s most completely realized cinematic essay. In it, she establishes a distinct relationship between the different objects of memory, connecting photos, films and pieces of art as the purveyors of slippery and ephemeral meaning. This personal tour of past films, blurry photographs, historically repeated images and her own staged memories—all the products of a still wildly dynamic imagination—is a confrontational affront to definitive biography. Fitting for the playful Varda, Beaches is an anti-biography, a fluid and non-linear tapestry where memory, fantasy and verité each vie for equal recognition and authority over the narrative.
Touring her own memory by staging it through a series of objects, films and installations, Varda can’t prevent herself from thoroughly exploring the possibilities of the present, thus denying any narrative license to her past. In visiting what she describes as the “landscapes” of her memory, she is consumed by new discovery. At the house where she spent her childhood, she becomes more interested in its current inhabitants—a toy train collector and his wife—than uncovering revelations from her own earliest years. The most explicit recollections of her past are evoked through excerpts from her films, from the voice of a young Jane Birkin or Yoland Moreau.
Often Varda’s supposed visits to the past take the form of an artistic installation, as in the film’s introduction, when she and an eager team of collaborators set up a number of mirrors on a North Sea beach in the Belgian town of her birth. The mirrors, each like its own screen or lens, perceive passing moments without the ability to capture them. It is this expressive use of images and objects that propels Varda’s exploration of her past and enhances the film’s recurring theme of movement and change. Instead of using photographs as the definitive source on her childhood, she places her family portraits in the sand on a beach, nearly losing them to the wind, and chooses instead to stage a scene with young actors of an afternoon on the beach in the 1930s.
Early in the film, Varda articulates the belief that cinema for her has always been a game. This declaration is in perfect congruence with her frisky nature, but furthermore, it discloses her trust in cinema to bear her most valiant artistic efforts, and to contain her meaningful, textured puzzles. Almost innocent in its sincerity and open-mindedness, the experiments and play staged in Beaches are rooted in a genuine desire to dig deeply into profound human emotion and experience.
The strong emphasis on transience perfectly complements the deep sense of emotional loss that is at the heart of the film; Varda’s love for her deceased husband Jacques Demy provides the emotional keystone. Demy’s perpetual stronghold on her heart is pieced together through many fractured and disparate moments. Intimately confiding his permanence in her memory, the film’s narrative finds Demy everywhere: his photo on a trading card at a yard sale, Varda’s final portraits of him, a flower for a dead friend transforming into another flower on his grave, and the reflections of his life that they each captured in their own films.
Along with her literal memorializing of Demy, Varda expresses her grappling with the confusion of loss by incorporating an installation piece into the film. “L’Ile et Elle”, a play on words meaning literally “The Island and Her” but also “The He and She” in homonym, was a projected video installation of a number of widows’ testimonies about the loss of their husbands. Varda points out her own portrait in the installation, sitting silently in the corner of the projection, listening but not telling her own story. This is Varda at play: creating to observe further, observing to understand, leading us back to her own work to reveal the most meaningful images of herself.
The Beaches of Agnes closes with yet another Varda installation, a house of discarded film stock. While cinema has been for her a game, it is an instrument that has enabled her to play with her own world. Varda’s cinema as essay, her house made of images, subverts the walk backwards through time that she takes in this film. Her joyful interaction with the medium substantiates cinema as a constant companion and eager playmate.
— Holly Herrick