It’s important for me to understand the effect of a given shot or sequence, to know if an idea has gotten through… The audience is not an undifferentiated lump of eyes and ears. Each individual in the theater receives a film as if it’s for his or her eyes only, and will relate to those behind the film — with this or that actor, and hopefully with the author. — Agnès Varda
The Beaches of Agnès teems with such a surfeit of images, history, jokes, emotions, and names that it’s hard to imagine any two viewers latching on to the same ones or in the same way. But latch on we do — to the main actor, Agnès, and to the author, Varda.
In 1954, when becoming a woman director in France was no easy feat, Varda started making films and never looked back. She was essentially the sole female member of the New Wave, the phenomenon that changed the cinematic landscape in the late 1950s and beyond. The enduring avatars of this creative movement include Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Jacques Demy, though some 120 directors formed the mass of the Wave by breaking away from the entrenched studio system and making a first feature film during the years between 1958 and 1962. These “young Turks” decided they could do better than the French studio system: Chabrol liked to say that everything you need to know to make a feature film can be learned in a few hours. Their movies, made on the cheap in black and white, collectively thumbed a nose at the traditions of the well-made script and specialized training. And rather than working their way up slowly through apprenticeships in the industry, Godard, Truffaut and others began as film critics, diving into the flood of foreign films that had become available on French screens after the drought of World War II.
The New Wave rejected the role of the director as a mere implementer of a famous writer’s polished screenplay. In 1948, Alexandre Astruc had written that the cinema was capable of directly expressing anything in human thought, and many of the young critic-filmmakers took that proclamation as a credo. Hence the idea of the auteur (French for author), a concept of the director as sole or principal artist/creator of the whole film.
Agnès Varda is considered to be a part of the New Wave, but it's important to note that she was quite apart from it, too. She was a photographer, not a cinephile — she claims, in fact, to have seen only a half-dozen films in her life (including Disney’s Snow White) before making her first film. She knew plenty about the composition of images, having served by then for several years as the official photographer of the Théâtre National Populaire, one of France’s most distinguished theater companies. But narrative and the moving image were both new to her. To complete that first film, La Pointe Courte, which was completed in 1955, a few years before the rest of the New Wave filmmakers began to catch up, she engaged a young colleague named Alain Resnais, who was captivated by the footage she had shot and taught her how to edit. She’s more commonly associated with a group of filmmakers known as the ‘Left Bank ’ whose members — Resnais, Chris Marker, and Jacques Demy — began not as critics, but rather as documentarians. She and Demy, who would become a creator of marvelous fantasy films and is perhaps best known on this side of the Atlantic for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (but please also see his hallucinatorily lovely Donkey Skin), married in 1962.
Few directors embody the cinéma d’auteur as wholly as Agnès Varda. She has remained resolutely immune from the temptations of big money and big productions. Her artisanal approach has allowed her to retain the right of final cut on all her work. Her offices today may be homey, but they are a no-nonsense hive of activity. There are good reasons this woman has endured in a male profession: her relentless curiosity and creativity, but also her fierce determination to make the films she envisions.
Her best films tend to meander like an essay by Michel de Montaigne. She makes many of her discoveries in the editing room, seeing the opportunity for a motif that unites images with dialogue, or a sociopolitical point that can surface elegantly by means of a cut, and running with it. She refers to her method as cinécriture, a word that cleverly combines the French words for cinema and writing. True to Astruc’s manifesto, she uses the camera and editing as her pen, “writing” essays and telling stories directly in a pun-filled cinematic language.
Place: German auteur Wim Wenders observed that most films we see could be made just about anywhere. This quality of placelessness typified the entire studio system in Hollywood in the era before the New Wave: Movies such as Key Largo and Casablanca were routinely shot on sets, where it was easier to control light, noise and distractions, rather than in real locations like Florida or Morocco. But it is in Varda’s DNA to inhabit real places and build her films around them. Her debut film, La Pointe Courte (1954), features nonprofessionals in a southern coastal fishing village in southern France, and delights in their regional rhythms and accents of speech and even their flat, amateurish delivery. The camera gets more memorable mileage from laundry fluttering in the breeze by the port, nets and lines extending from boats moored in their slips or a cat walking between sun and shadow in an alley than it does from the stentorian lines uttered by the two main professional actors.
Varda’s output is fairly evenly divided between acted story films and documentaries, with a fine line often separating the two. All 45 or so of her films have in common a sense of being rooted in specific places. Take her two best-known fiction films. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) famously takes place (and all her films "take place") over a two-hour time span in Paris, as the main character awaits the results of a test for cancer. The film minutely documents the places Cleo goes: this real street, this park, this actual bus route. If you know Paris, you know where she is at every step. Vagabond (1985) also shows a female protagonist wandering through a specific area, a small part of southern France during the winter months — here the Nîmes train station, there the village of Bellegarde.
Varda’s fictions have a haphazard quality that can nettle viewers accustomed to the classical tight narrative of Hollywood filmmaking. Much European cinema in the 1950s rebelled against well-delineated character traits as motivation for plot events, and Varda was part of this impulse. What replaces the tight plot is her emphasis on place, on the way people interact with landscape, and on the sheer fascination with visual composition and gesture. At the center of Vagabond is a young woman named Mona (Varda made Sandrine Bonnaire into a star with this film) who’s a dirty, uncouth drifter. Is she poetic? Does she have inner desires? Is she a rebel? Impossible to tell, but each locale Mona visits propels the story.
The Beaches of Agnès partakes of this integrality of place, transporting the viewer from beach to beach, with the various beaches serving as emblems of stops along Varda’s personal life trajectory. Varda starts out on the seacoast near Brussels, where she lived as a child, and subsequently moves on to Sète on France’s Mediterranean coast. Varda's family lived there during the war, and at age 25, she returned to the area to shoot her first film. From there, The Beaches of Agnès moves to the island of Noirmoutier, where Varda and Demy spent vacations and summers, and where she shot Les Créatures (1966) and more recent photo and installation works. The film meanders to Venice Beach as an emblem of Varda’s two Los Angeles periods, when she shot several films including her personal favorite, Documenteur (1981). Finally, in a sly and playful move, Varda makes a beach around her decidedly landlocked Paris home and offices by having huge amounts of sand shipped in and dumped onto the Rue Daguerre.
Play: Varda sees cinema as a seriously playful enterprise and as a stage on which the author combines and commands words, images and sounds. In her first documentaries, one about the castles on the Loire and the other about the tourist culture of the Mediterranean coast, witty voiceover narration sets up verbal-visual puns. For example, through editing, the name "Eden-roc" that graces hotels and swimming pools on the Riviera, referring to paradise, becomes "Eden-toc" —fake or kitschy Eden. The French tourism office that commissioned these films must have been ambivalent about the results, which exhibited a clever and ironic tone that cannot have been great for business.
Varda has never flinched at rearranging reality in her documentaries. In the Loire chateau film from 1957, she plunks a phalanx of very modern haute couture models onto the fortified walls of a centuries-old castle for a colorful surrealist assemblage. She’s still at it over 40 years later in The Beaches of Agnès, putting to work/play an entire company of acrobats on trapezes by the sea; we see Agnès the character, ordering people around for her sharp camera-eye, like a cross between Julia Child and a playground supervisor, in a proclamation of the right to do whatever she wants to delight her viewers.
The visual-verbal puns are often deeply poetic. The very first shot of The Beaches of Agnès shows Agnès walking backward on a beach, announcing a pattern of such shots. She’s “going back” — literally, visually, but also going back in memory and in time. It’s both silly and profoundly touching to see this diminutive 81-year-old powerhouse playing in her sandbox and in the process, showing us a life in art and personal and cultural history. Similarly, Varda plays with mirrors—a trick she has turned to her advantage before, notably in a fanciful 1988 film-portrait of the actress and singer Jane Birkin. The mirror becomes the movie camera, which is after all a mirror held up to life, and it yields up a rich serving of suggestion, evocations of classical painting, and arresting compositions-within-compositions.
Camera-play permeates The Gleaners and I (2000). After Varda has unwittingly left her video camera's Record button on, she decides to keep the 'junk' footage — to glean from it, just as her various subjects from chefs to homeless people glean from the fields and the alleys. Add music, and voilà, Varda creates the sequence of the dancing lens cap. Elsewhere, riding in a car on a boring stretch of highway, she plays with the notion of the frame (film or picture frame, frame of reference). As she makes a circle of her thumb and index finger, she frames a truck seen out the windshield. The childlike equation of big and small is a charming assertion of the independent filmmaker's ability to offer fresh visions within modest means.
Varda’s playful style often forsakes clear linear presentation in favor of allusiveness and digression. In The Beaches of Agnès, the onscreen Agnès comments about fragmentation, in a direct reference to her approach to filmmaking. The mirrors fragment the image in the first sequence; but the whole film, too, is a seemingly loose chain of fragments as it moves from place to place, between present and past, and from present reality to quotes from her own and Demy’s films. Her work exploits a constant tension between the marvelous things that develop with associative stream-of-consciousness filmmaking, and organized discourse that tells a coherent story.
What is the connection between Varda the auteur of the films (including The Beaches of Agnès) and Agnès the character onscreen? When Agnès tearfully evokes the sadness of the dear departed people in her life, what chemical reactions happen when we know that she has set this up with her crew, and that she is acting out her melancholy? Are we the butt of the joke, or is this a nostalgic, even maudlin moment from an aging filmmaker starting to lose it? The answer is clear: Varda remains the total master of her work and enjoys her cat-and-mouse game with each of us, in our relation with both Agnès the character and Varda, the elusive, always inventive author.
Claudia Gorbman is a professor of film studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. She is the author of Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Indiana UP and the British Film Institute, 1987) and some sixty articles and book chapters on film, mostly film music and sound. She is the editor of several volumes including an upcoming anthology called The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics (co-edited with John Richardson). She has translated four books by the French critic Michel Chion, most recently Film, a Sound Art (Columbia UP, 2009, which has just won the 2010 Richard Wall Memorial Award from the Theater Library Association for best book in film and broadcasting). She is at work on a monograph on Agnès Varda, and has fond memories of a research period in Paris that included lunches with Agnès, stirring the vegetables on the stove and talking about Baudelaire.