The Beaches of Agnes (Les plages d’Agnès) – Movie Review

Agnes Varda shows us what modern film making is all about in a whimsical look at a cinematic genius

One has to wonder if Agnes Varda made this film to allow the public to better understand the fifty years of her work that has come before it, or if she made the film for her own nostalgia.  Or just for the fun of it.  She would do the latter, go to this incredible amount of work just to do something a little different.  Of course for her it is never clear if photography and film making is work or if it is just her way of seeing the world.  Perhaps it is no more work that it is for most people to see the sun rise in the morning.

This film is the story of Varda’s life in film and photography.  But it is not as much her physical life as it is her emotional and creative life.  There is an ongoing theme of conflict between what we see and what is real.  She tells the origins of her work in a series of vignettes bases on themes of the sea and the beach but she is constantly populating the natural beach with intentionally exaggerated artificial props and toys.  The props and toys exaggerate her own attempts to live in a world that is inherently foreign and awful.  She fabricates a one-dimensional car of cardboard to relive her attempts at parking.

Varda was born in Brussels, Belgium, to a Greek father and French mother. Her father’s family were Greek refugees but she doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about that.  At one point in the film she uses a surprise letter from the doctor living in her childhood home as a reason to visit the house and describe a bit of her life in flashback.  Through her camera we are there briefly but the visit doesn’t amount to much.  The doctor resident shows us his model trains and we are confronted with the model trains as opposed to Varda’s own difficulties growing up.  It seems to be that we can never go back.  Or when we do go back what we see is never the same as we remember it, or it is never the same as seem through our younger eyes.

Throughout the film is her playfulness, her stepping backwards in front of the camera as if to summon images from her past.  Now we step back, back into time.  But, of course, the camera doesn’t work like that; it doesn’t run back in time.  Maybe if we put enough mirrors on the beach we will reflect back into time or reflect back into the farthest reaches of our mind and see what has made us what we are.

Although the film is mostly fun and good-natured joshing about the successes and failures of a modern artist far ahead of the curve, there are times that are scary.  Varda spent some time with expatriate Jim Morrison just before he ended his life in Paris.  Those brief films are a little scary, simply by virtue of their pure unrehearsed truthfulness.  It’s always worse when you know the ending.  On a more humorous note Varda spent time in San Francisco around the peak of the hippie anti-war movement.  She had a great sympathy for the anti-war movement, was very leftist herself in her politics, and had a sort of sympathy and admiration for the club-footed politics of the Black panthers.  Again, the film footage is brief but exceedingly effective in transmitting the feelings of the time.  One final shot of the makers of “Hair” posing nude with Viva and, thankfully, we are back in France.

Varda studied Art History in Paris at the Ecole du Louvre and landed a remarkable job as photographer for the Théâtre National Populaire in Paris.  Her successes and talent in photography led her to consider what would happen if one added words to the pictures.  The result, she originally surmised, would be films.  The actual result, she confesses, turned out to be much more.  She filmed the small French fishing town of La Pointe Courte for a friend and returned in 1954 to make her first film “La Pointe Courte,” about a relationship in crisis with the backdrop of the sea.  Using the film medium to enhance conflicts with real time and perceived time and symbolic and perceived images the film is a stylistic precursor to the French New Wave.

Although associated with the more popular New Wave, Varda had a strong political streak and was very feminist.  This might have been one of the aspects of her work that kept her from popular acceptance evening while garnering significant critical acclaim.  Her feminism combined with extreme leftist politics could not help but come out in her films as mush as she photographed the superficial.

The film includes shots and brief conversations with many of the great New Wave directors as well as persons who made their mark in the culture of the 60s, 70s and 80s.  These persons include her husband of nearly thirty years, Jacques Demy, Catherine Deneuve, Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Harrison Ford, Sabine Mamou and Corinne Marchand.

Release: July 1, 2009
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 109 minutes
Country: France
Language: French
Color: Color