The Beaches of Agnes (Varda, 2009)

Breaking the Waves

“If you opened people up, you would find landscapes. If you opened me up, you would find beaches.”

Agnes Varda utters this lyrical slice of self-reflection at the beginning of The Beaches of Agnes, a personal essay film, both seamless and distant, lonely and passionate. The Matron Saint of the French New Wave surfs backward in time re-addressing memories, situations, relationships, losses, developments, and regrets. In opening herself up, we not only see the images, films, and experiences of a master filmmaker at work, but the underlining shifts in her tide, the personal reflections of self and soul that push these recollections into the realm of poetry. The Beaches of Agnes evolves like a passion play with history, acted out by a vibrant woman yearning to capture a glimmer of something forgotten, something lost. But the film is also incredibly inclusive, maybe too much so for the viewer to truly connect in even the most universal moments. Varda seems content with this fact, as she often gets lost in her own memories, unwilling to explain every nuance and symbol.

Throughout the film, Varda uses a loose timeline of important historical moments large and small as a structuring device. But she always comes back to the solitude of landscape. Throughout her lengthy examination, Varda configures and recreates actual memories of childhood through elaborate artistic installations, often at beaches she occupied as a child, looking back with rose-colored lenses, not always successfully, in an attempt to circumvent time. In certain moments these reconstructions fail to illicit any emotion from Varda herself, creating a sense of disappointment in the director that cannot be denied. Often, the subtext of her words don’t necessarily add credence to the recreations, and Varda’s compressed approach to actual dates and events makes The Beaches of Agnes a fleeting, at times disjointed walk down memory lane.

But when Varda speaks of her longtime husband filmmaker Jacques Demy, explaining their time together frankly and earnestly, detailing the habits and patterns of two artists working momentarily together and mostly apart, The Beaches of Agnes turns melancholy, lonely even. We get the sense that Varda needs this more than the viewer, a memory gauge for contemplating life’s core emotions in the face of growing older. Varda even turns reflections regarding her previous films, Cleo For 5 to 7 and Vagabond most notably, into ruminations on her personal life, never separating one path from the other.

This process is sometimes exhilarating and exhausting as Varda layers her expansive life under mountains of material, both artificial and organic. But it’s a walk worth taking, if simply for the fantastic lost footage of icons interacting – Godard without his trademark dark shades, Depardieu as a skinny beatnik, Resnais standing tall in Varda’s doorway, and Chris Marker’s feline alter ego pushing Varda toward the comic undertones of her quest. The Beaches of Agnes seems to be collecting these memories, like a child collecting seashells, shaking off the sands of time to reveal the unexpected beauty long gestating underneath. In this respect, the film revels in Varda’s vision of film history, both experienced and created, getting up close and personal with her interpretation of self-importance and artistic standing.

But ego never enters the frame. The Beaches of Agnes is about personal connection and Varda focuses on the faces of life-long friends and new acquaintances alike, closing in on the textures and wrinkles of their skin, giving due in some impressionist way to anyone she can recall. The Beaches of Agnes remembers the why behind the what, the reasons certain landscapes resonate and other don’t, why certain friends and lovers last forever and others fade away. For Varda, the process of re-discovering is an exciting and saddening one, but entirely necessary for her survival as an artist and a woman.

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