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A Lioness and Her Love: Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès

Varda turns the camera on herself and her own life, even though she convincingly posits that she’s much more interested in other people.

A Lioness and Her Love: The Beaches of Agnès
Photo: Cinema Guild

Agnès Varda, the slightly pixilated but fierce fairy godmother of the French New Wave, claims to be “playing the role of a little old lady” in her new documentary, The Beaches of Agnès. Varda turns the camera on herself and her own life, even though she convincingly posits that she’s much more interested in other people; whimsical and childlike, but completely without sentiment, she says that her childhood was not “an inspiration,” and proves it by evincing no particular nostalgia when she visits her childhood home.

Yet The Beaches of Agnès catches her in several moments of passionate sorrow for “the dead.” At a gallery show of her theater photographs, she throws flowers at the image of the supernally beautiful young Gerard Philipe and reserves her deepest feeling, as always, for “the most cherished of the dead,” her late husband, Jacques Demy, the creator of major romantic films like Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Varda has always been an eclectic filmmaker. She can be grim and spare, as in her best narrative film, the Bresson-like Vagabond from 1985, and she can be as playful as a kitten, as in 1969’s Warhol-esque Lion’s Love. Cléo from 5 to 7, from 1962, and the very disturbing Le Bonheur, released three years later, still stand as two of the best films of their time and place, but Varda is most happy in the documentary form.

In the past 20 years, she’s devoted herself most often to explorations of Demy’s work and her own, and even the history of cinema itself. Not many artists could get away with going over the same ground again and again, but Varda is blessed with a rare spontaneity, speed of thought and a charm that never cloys (see especially her hilarious “dance of the camera lens” in 2000’s The Gleaners and I). In The Beaches of Agnès, she literally walks backwards on the seaside to bring us back in time with her; at an art opening, she dresses as a potato to greet her audience. Devices like this always hit an ideal note of restrained wackiness, and Varda reveals one of the secrets to her outlook: “Reality meant little to me,” she says, which of course made her the ideal mate for Demy, one of the cinema’s major fantasists.

In The Beaches of Agnès’s most unexpected moment, she brings on soft-core porn maker Zalman King and his wife, who talk about their long-term, happy marriage. Varda admits to a twinge of jealousy when she contemplates the couple, and she moves a bit closer to explaining her mysterious relationship with Demy, who gave her a son, Mathieu, but was gay and died of AIDS in 1990. At one point here, she imagines herself and Demy at the beginning of their relationship as Magritte figures, with cloth bags on their heads; as her models move away from the camera, we see that they’re nude and then we register the male model’s erection.

Varda is trying to tell us something visually, but the meaning remains obscure, and it’s remarkable how many times she’s circled around her time with Demy in her recent films without ever getting into any detail about how this special relationship worked. What remains clear, though, is her abiding love for him, and her determination to make sure his films are seen (I’ve heard that his long missing-in-action Une Chambre en Ville from 1982 might be next for a restoration and premiere here in the states). As for herself, I’m happy to follow Varda’s sensibility anywhere she chooses to go, whether it’s backwards, forwards, or sideways.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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