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Autobiographies can be the worst or the best of things. Either a boring
exercise in conceit and self-absorption or a fascinating
self-exploration by a person of value.
Well, the Agnes of 'Les plages d'Agnès' being Agnès Varda there is no need to worry. She undoubtedly belongs to the second category.
It goes without saying that to fully appreciate this wonderful film you have to be a minimum acquainted with Varda's oeuvre. But a minimum is enough, for it does not take long before the lady starts captivating you, not by boasting about all the masterpieces she made, but by creating a new kind of story-telling right before your eyes.
One thing I am pretty sure of is that there is no other film, autobiographical or not, that looks like "Les plages d'Agnès".
Of course there is no question that Varda's life is rich and worth telling: she worked for and with great artists, she was married to one of the most original French directors ever (Jacques Demy), she covered the fledgling Chinese and Cuban revolutions, fought in favor of feminism when it was not yet fashionable to do so. The real issue for the director was in fact to find HOW to talk about herself. Well after viewing "Les Plages d'Agnès", I can tell her (and I am far from being the only one to think so): "You did it brilliantly, Agnès".
Indeed Agnès Varda is not content to go through the motions of the standard autobiographical movie: talking face to the camera or in voice over, interviewing witnesses of her life and illustrating her words with significant clips. She does that of course but she knows how to enrich the material through a lot original finds: the mirrors on the beaches,her walking backwards to show she goes back in time, the circus artists on the beach, recreating her Cine Tamaris production office on a fake beach in Rue Daguerre, her sailing a boat from Sete to Paris as an allegory of the evolution of her career, etc. etc. Agnès Varda never rests on her laurels throughout. Quite the contrary: she creates, invents, tries out new things sequence after sequence. In the film she calls herself 'une petite vieille' (a short old lady) but I suspect she says so out of vanity because she does not look old at all. Actually, she has retained all the freshness, all the spontaneity of the young lady she once was.
Don't refrain from seeing this film even if it does not appeal to you in the first place. When the end credits roll you will probably - just like I did - utter with a sigh: "Is it already the end?"
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Agnes Varda, one of the most original women directors, bar none, is at
it again. We were quite impressed by this film, which is not a
biography, but in which Ms. Varda takes us on a tour of her life. She
has always been admired for her films, but this account is almost a
confession she makes to us, her audience. Islands have been a close
subject for her, and so we are shown parts of her life where she has
been closely tied to these places in the sea.
"Les plages d'Agnes" serves the director to take us along for a magical ride in which reveals some things that one never knew about her, as well as she goes over some parts of her life we already knew. Her life with Jacques Demy and their work is often seen at different moments of their distinguished careers. The revelation of her husband's death from AIDS must have weighed heavily on her. Such a vital man to succumb to that disease is hard to imagine and one can only feel for what Agnes went through in that ordeal.
In spite of her age, Agnes Varda shows an amazing amount of energy. She sets most of the narrative on a beach in which she lets her imagination go wild with the possibilities she can create from the elements she uses. She is also seen rowing on the Seine near the Pont Neuf, a bridge that she feels a connection to.
Some snippets of her big hits are shown, like the immensely satisfying "Cleo, from 5 to 7", and "Vagabund", just to mention two. She is kind to the artists she has enjoyed working with. She gave the great Phillipe Noiret his start in the French cinema. She is also generous to other people that have done great things in the French industry like, Resnais, Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard, Demy, and Rivette, among others.
Funny that Ms. Varda was born not in France, but in Belgium. She made her home in the country which welcomed her. There is a sequence in which we see her and her family doing a kind of a slow dance on a beach that has to be one of the most moving moments for this viewer. This film is highly recommended even for people that have not seen Ms. Varda's previous work. She wins us over just by being herself.
French New Wave film-maker and photographer Agnes Varda takes a look
back at her life, her career, and her loves. She tells her story mostly
to camera, now 80 years old - "a little old lady, pleasantly plump" -
and is still full of life and wonder. She starts with her time studying
art in Ecole du Louvre, the charms of the small town near Paris where
she made her first film, her relationship with and love of fellow film-
maker Jacques Demy, and the beginning of the French New Wave movement,
and moves on to her re-location to and seduction by Hollywood, the
hippy movement, her neo-Feminist views that influenced her films, and
her move into photography. Most of all though, she reminisces about the
eccentrics she encountered, and the photographs that immortalise her
Varda seems extremely keen to cement these memories either by recording them on her ever-present video-camera, or by taking pictures. It is important to remember, it seems. She uses a number of different artistic techniques in the film. Her wonder and love of the beaches are evident at the beginning as she lays out a number of old photographs in the sand that blow in the wind, as she reminisces. She also lays out a number of mirrors facing all angles and directions, creating some fascinating images. Varda has a clear love for art, and sees it in everything she does. As she watches a man gaze out to sea, she describes him as being like Ulysses. It is clear that it is Varda herself who is like Ulysses - life has been an epic journey for her, in which she has encountered many friends and characters, and the sea is like her life, vast and beautiful, but fading into the distance.
What is so joyous about the film is how wonderfully sentimental it is. It is not patronising or forceful by overplaying sad music or having Varda cry into the camera, but instead the beauty and the melancholy are in her words, and how she describes the first time she met Demy, or how she turned a run down alley full of empty picture frames and overhanging trees into a beautiful gateway. It is so beautifully sad yet ultimately uplifting. Varda is a wonderful and intelligent lady who's love of art and creativity shines through what appears to be a short woman with a strange haircut. Less a documentary, and more of an exploration of art, love and life seen through the eyes of a woman who has lived through the very heart of it. Lyrical, beautiful, and reminds you of the true joys to be found in cinema.
Granted, I am a huge fan of Agnès Varda's workand persona. I've seen
most of her American releases, which are, unfortunately, far fewer than
the 46 films she's directed. Sorry to report that even Netflix only
stocks 8 of her films; my local video store and library system, not
Eighty-one-year-old Varda is, first and foremost, a poet who happens to be holding a video camera. And with this, her autobiography, she quickly brings us into the stream of consciousness of her brilliant mind, regaling us with both fantastic images, filmic experiments, and words rendered so quietly and sweetly that it belies their utter veracity. With the fluidity of a Russian ballerina, she weaves still photos, clips from her films, present- day documentary footage, and fictional re-creations.
A viewer with a familiarity of her oeuvre will obviously take away greater understanding and enjoyment of this recounting of her life and work. Yet, I believe it's accessible even for the uninitiated, as a tribute to an artist and iconoclast who sustains a strong vision and keen insight into life and art. And a great big heart.
" 'If we opened up people, we'd find landscapes.' If we opened up me, we'd find beaches," she begins, an apt conceit for the half-Greek filmmaker who has lived her life near the sea. And thus, in the film's opening shots, she constructs a web of mirrors propped on easels in the sand, reflecting the incoming waves. These are fancy, gilded, furniture mirrors, large and small, capturing both la plage and Varda's reflection as she begins the narrative of her childhood. In and of itself, it's a beautiful installation piecegreatly enhanced by the reflexive quality of a sea of cameras filming themselves.
Moments later, she sets up family photos on blades of grass in the sand. While discussing an image of herself and her sister in their bathing suits, two little girls appear in current time, wearing the same sorts of suits. "I don't know what it means to re-create a scene like this. Do we relive the moment?" Varda wonders. But her answer seems less about reconstructing the past (this is not a wistful film like Bergman's Wild Strawberries), but more about delight in her powers as a magician with a camera. "For me, it's cinema, it's a game," she says.
Some of the film's sweetest moments derive from shots of her familyher two children and late-husband, fellow New Wave auteur Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). She obviously has great affection for the "peaceful island," as she describes them. In one lovely scene, the extended family is dressed in white gauze, frolicking. "Together they're the sum of my happiness. But I don't know if I know them, or understand them. I just go toward them."
Varda employs an unusual technique of re-creating the major moments of her life/films while bringing her current self into the proceedings. In the age of social networking a la Facebook, with gambits toward entering the past as we simultaneously dwell in the present, this seems a very contemporary notion. With the gift of memory, we both do and don't inhabit all of the times of our life at once. As she states, "I live. And as long as I live, I remember."
One of La Varda's most lovable traits is how utterly herself she can be. Her 8-decade-old hair sports its trademark bowl cut, yet in some scenes is colored almost parfait-like (sans cerise) with white on top and deep red around the endsgloriously unconventional, and wry. And indeed her sense of humor is continually present. She also has the good sense not to take herself completely seriously. After revisiting her early home in Brussels and discovering that it is now inhabited by an avid train enthusiast who prattles on about his collection, she concludes, "The 'childhood home' part was a flop."
In 55 years of making films, the director has clearly spent ample time pondering the art of her craft. As she notes, "I think I've always lived in it." This is obviously so, and without traditional tutelage. She claims to have made her directorial debut, La Pointe-Courte, after having taken in just 10 films in her first 25 years. This greatly flouted convention within French film-making of the time, in which training and credentials were paramount. Much of the film concerns images and the context of their creation the process of birthing, what prompts images into being, the results of their existence, the ripple effects of the filmmaker's art, and the inextricable link between maker and film.
Although Varda includes reenactments in this walk backward, she also allows the viewer to be in on their making. It's as if she hopes to underscore the artifice and revels in the fact that we will knowingly suspend our disbelief anyway. In one scene, she sets up a production office atop sand dumped on a city street.
The movie's final scene reveals Varda's "shack," a studio she's recently built on the beach. The filmmaker-as-architect metaphor made real, its walls are constructed of strips of celluloid from a 1966 film in carefully chosen colors, bathed in light. The structure is fragile yet appears solid. This is a wondrous metaphor, one that seems to encapsulate the artist's spirit and life. "In here, it feels like I live in cinema," she notes.
This movie is so far beyond what could be considered,'Documentary', that the film exists in entirely new cinematic terrain. Agnes Varda has spent her life portraying Life with an artistic skill and wit that is second to none. She has created a body of work, both as a photographer and a film maker that will be viewed and celebrated as long as there are humans on the planet. And, now with, THE BEACHES OF AGNES, she tackles the presentation of her own personal story, not within the confines of, 'Realism', but in full-blown, 'Surreal Mode'. Each and every shot in this film is a joy to behold- Awe inspiring and playful simultaneously. Sound, or the lack there of, also adds an additional perspective which has a way of pulling the viewer deeper into the startling images and compelling narrative structure. THE BEACHES OF AGNES is one of the best films I have seen in a long while, and I am positive that I have never seen anything quite like it. A Must See.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Agnès Varda today is an impressive women, whose present self is woven
throughout this poetic film autobiography. At eighty (a surprise
birthday celebration decorates the end credits) she is spry of body and
vigorous of mind, inventive and alive, looking forward as well as back
in this poetic film autobiography. She blends living tableaux,
installations, old footage, voice-over, interviews. She is ever
present, talking, inventing, directing, symbolically (and actually, on
camera) walking backward. The result is far too beautiful to call
"documentary portrait." Remembering the film, one thinks of Agnès at
various ages, always with the same shiny dark cloche of hair (allowed
to grow white in some shots) and the same solid, mobile form. One also
remembers circus acrobats performing on a beach; a carnivalesque film
office set up in the sand. One thinks of Agnès with Demy, and his
sweet, sad face; her children and grandchildren, dressed in white and
cavorting around her for the camera 'contre jour', into the sun, on the
sand with the sea behind them, glorious and handsome and Mediterranean.
This is a celebration of cinema and of life.
She does not forget to talk about the Nazis and the extermination camps, or her schoolgirl songs celebrating the collaborationist government of Pètain and Vichy. Or her sadness about all the great people she photographed and knew who are gone. Or her anger about the exploitation of women.
But Beaches of Agnès is also not without deliberate lacunae. How did the love of her life, her husband, her co-director on his famous Umbrellas of Cherbourg, happen to die of AIDS? Everybody is talking to her, so they tell her what she wants to hear. There's nothing wrong with that, because we want to hear it too. Yet with the poetry and beauty one's left in a bit of a daze, because film fiction and film fact and reenactment and chronology are interwoven so cunningly and rapidly you need a chronology and a stop button, which are not provided. The fluidity of it is quite enchanting. But it doesn't exactly leave you with a precise knowledge of this wonderful, long life that's probably not near its creative end. (After all, we already live in an age of 80-something and 90-something filmmakers. And here is a woman, and women live longer than men.) To hold together such a rich life, Agnès Varda needed a theme, and she feels in everyone there is a landscape, but in her there are beaches; her life has often revolved around them. The eternal theme of woman and water, weave, wave, wife. And if it was difficult to provide unity, that only reflects the richness of the life.
Her father was Greek, her mother French; her first name was Arlette; she legally changed it to Agnès at 18. She was born in Belgium, and in 1940 they fled to Sète on the south coast of France (where Kechiche's Secret of the Grain unfolds and she lived her adolescence. After studying photography in Paris and working for the Theatre National Populaire, she came knew everybody, including Godard, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Demy of course. Jean Vilar of the national theater, Philippe Noiret, whom she used in her first film, 'Pointe Courte.' In Hollywood she befriended Jim Morrison of the Doors, and to use Harrison Ford in a movie at a time when he was told he had no future in pictures.
She covered the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, fought for abortion and other women's issues, was grouped with Marker and Resnais as part of the Nouvelle Vague, lived in and loved LA and was filming the Black Panthers when Paris was in turmoil in June of '68. (In '67, the Summer of Love, she made 'Uncle Yanco,' about her bohemian painter uncle who lived on a houseboat in Sausalito.) She made such classic films as (her first important work) 'Cleo from 5 to 7',, the Bresson-like 'Vagabond'/'Sans toit ni loi;' 'The Gleaners;' 'One Sings, the Other Doesn't.' 'Vagabond' won the Golden Lion in Venice and made Sandrine Bonaire a star. Varda made films about LA murals ('Murs murs') and hippies ('Lions Love,' with Warhol's Viva), and Jane Birkin, and completed three about Jacque Demy after his death. As she points out, light small digital cameras were important for in the making of 'The Gleaners' (perhaps also for 'Vagabond'?).
In 2006, at 78, she was invited to do a video and stills installation, "L'Ile et elle" (the island and her: she likes such punning titles), about the island of Noirmoutier--a step forward in a new career that's reflected in the various 'tableaux vivantes' and installations of this film that evoke her past poetically, express her vision, and simply enchant and avoid forever the boredom of the conventional filmed autobiography. She begins with rich use of mirrors on the beach, moving among them and directing and talking to her typically attractive young film crew. In one remarkable sequence, she has the men who worked in one of her early films reassembled, pushing a large cart through the street at night, with a projector mounted on it showing the. Film.
She can be a bit maudlin, as she is throwing down roses in a huge installation of her old much enlarged black and white portraits of Gerard Philippe, Philippe Noiret, and other departed stars of her firmament and French cinema's. And when talking about Jacques Demy, she weeps. But mostly she is joyous, and smiles. The fact the cause of Demy's death, AIDS, was kept secret then and for years after she attributes to the stigma attached to the disease in the Eighties.
Varda's eliding of distinctions between real and imaginary, documentary and fiction, present and past can be very confusing: distinctions don't mean enough to her. But though things could be more organized and expository, her confusions and confutation's are still beautiful and fascinating to watch.
In a revealing and playful mood, filmmaker Agnes Varda narrates her own
filmed autobiography in The Beaches of Agnes. The film begins with
Varda, now 82, setting up mirrors on the beach with the sounds of one
of her mother's favorite works, Schubert's Unfinished Symphony in the
background Though she asserts that "Today, I'm playing a little old
lady, talkative and plump," she looks anything like a little old lady.
The film re-creates her life with childhood memories that take her back
to homes she knew as a child in Brussels and the city of Sete where she
made her first film at the age of 26.
The film is not a dry documentary, filled with reminiscences of people we never heard of. It is a work of art in itself, a celebration not only of her life, but of all life. Along the way, Varda takes us to Los Angeles (one of her favorite cities in which she lived) where she talks about and shows photos of her former husband Jacques Demy, who she announces died of AIDS in 1990, Jane Birkin, Chris Marker (dressed as a cartoon cat) and even poet, singer Jim Morrison. Varda began as a photographer and we see an example of her photos from a long time ago. While the film documents Varda's films beginning with her first Le Pointe Curé in 1956 to the present day and the first appearances on film of Gerald Depardieu, Phillipe Noiret, and Harrison Ford, she also discusses in detail and shows excerpts from her most popular films including Cléo from 5 to 7, Le Bonheur, Vagabond, The Gleaners and I, and her documentary tributes to her husband.
Rather than an egoists attempt to enhance a reputation with big events in which she participated, the film looks at small things like the uniform she had to wear in Vichy France and a scene at an outdoor flea market where the director finds cardboard cutouts of herself and other filmmakers with their works listed on the back. But there is much more. With actors dramatizing important memories from her life, The Beaches of Agnes is filled with the people, including her two grown children, places and events, including her trips to Cuba and China that contributed to her personal growth and made her the lively and vibrant person she is today. She closes the documentary by saying, "I am alive, and I remember." While we are still alive, we will remember her.
Agnès Varda presented us in this autobiographical movie with her memories of a life devoted to the cinema and not only. She does that in powerful and beautiful images supported by a brilliant, witty and sensitive commentary. In this movie we can see references to several of some of the best Varda's films such as La Pointe Courte, Cléo de 5 à 7 and Le Bonheur, with images, and to some of the greatest and more important figures of French cinema such as her husband Jacques Demy to begin with and also Godard, Catherine Deneuve, Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin and others. The cut is very intelligent and effective in visual terms combining the present and the past sometimes in simultaneous images with a special effect here and there. A masterpiece indeed.
I was fortunate to catch (October 30, 2009 in SF) "The Beaches of
Agnès" aka "Les Plages d'Agnès" 2008, in French with English subtitles.
Agnès Varda is 80 (in 2008) and still so lively, creative, imaginative,
giving us delightful reminiscing of The New Wave film period, including
the young and the old. What a filmmaker, cinematic lover, unique lady,
she is. Besides being a retrospective look at Varda's cinematic life
(so far), the film also serves as a loving dedication to the close to
30 years she shared with her husband Jacques Demy - the fabulous
w-d-filmmaker who gave us the popular French films entirely sung
musically: "The Young Girls of Rochefort" 1967 and "The Umbrellas of
Cherbourg" 1964 (Catherine Deneuve was in both of these two gems).
If you like movies, film history, graphic design, visual play on imagery (or affiliated to none of the above), you will (still) feel akin to Varda's 'Beaches' whether you thoroughly understands French, speaks the language, been to Paris-France, or not. She has delivered a cinematic journey of going through the various phases of her life, experiences in film-making, and added her unique stamp of Agnès Varda sensibility. It's a good place to be and 'tis fun to hang around with her. As my favorite Emily Dickinson epigram says: Delight has no Competitor, so it is always most. Yes, Agnès Varda is alive and well and still full of humor, bemused or otherwise - a fantastic spirited woman, ever the innovative-discovery eye afresh, so full of wisdom, be it wistful or witty.
This film is a great companion piece for viewing with her loving remembrance of Demy: Jacquot De Nantes (1991), which is in Black & White, and Color, documented the hometown childhood origin which grew into the lifelong cinematic passion of Jacques. Another enjoyable Varda-Demy film, anytime.
There is an accessible official site USA at "cinemaguild.com/beachesofagnes" and the trailer at "cinemaguild.com/beachesofagnes/trailer.html". Looks like DVD is available, released on March 2, 2010.
"The Beaches of Agnes" is an autobiographical documentary done in a
uniquely impressionistic style. The subject is Agnes Varda, the
legendary French director who began her career in the 1950s and, who at
the age of 80, shows that she is still a master of her art and craft.
For not only does Varda provide the voice-over narration for the film,
but she conceived and directed the project as well.
Varda uses as her focal point the various beaches where she spent a great deal of her time growing up. It is to these places that she has brought a crew of filmmakers to shoot her delivering extended monologues on her life and to restage - often in a cleverly amusing and surrealistic style - memories and events that have remained with her throughout the years. When she has actual photos and file footage from the past, she is quick to use them, but when she doesn't, she turns to present-day re-creations to fill in the gaps. But all is not limited to the beach, for she frequently heads inland to retrace the steps of her life, visiting key locations along the way.
She explores her childhood, when she lived much of the time on a houseboat; her teen years, when she was thoroughly ignorant of what a woman could do in the world and of the realities of man/woman relationships; her experiences during the War and the Occupation, when most French citizens "lived day to day;" her years studying art at the Ecole du Louvre; her first taste of freedom and independence when she stole off one night all on her own to Corsica; her time spent as a fisherman; her burgeoning fascination with photography; her marriage to fellow director and film-making inspiration, Jacques Demy; her role as mother and grandmother; her trips to Cuba and Southern California in the 1960s to capture in photos and on film the turbulent nature of that period; her fervent pro-feminist leanings that often found their way into her movies; and her eventual transition to film-making herself to become the only female figurehead of the French New Wave, an otherwise Young Boys' Club that included, in addition to Demy, Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, and various other cinematic masters.
It is here that the movie turns to Varda's career as a filmmaker, as the artist herself discusses her inspirations, her key themes and concerns, and the logistical problems of the movie-making process itself. The movie provides us with a generous sampling of clips from not just her own movies but those of Demy as well.
As she reflects back on her life, Varda addresses the issues of aging, memory, and personal loss (especially of her beloved Jacques, who died of AIDS in 1990). She views the sea as representative of permanence - and human beings and their foreshortened life spans as symbols of the universe at its most temporal. Through its mixing of the real with the surreal, the literal with the figurative, "The Beaches of Agnes" mirrors the hybrid nature of Varda's photographic and cinematic works themselves.
But the movie is often at its most charming when it is content to simply BE, when some seemingly random image, person, event or thought comes along to capture Varda's complete and undivided attention - a testament to her astute powers of observation, to her complete and utter absorption in the moment, and to her ability to make art out of the raw materials of actual life.
And isn't that what movie-making is really all about, after all?
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