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. Continue reading

Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda, 1961)

My second viewing of Varda’s masterpiece was pure bliss. Having already experienced in full effect the wonderful and dynamic storyline, this time around I focused more on the aesthetics and the film still holds up. Cleo from 5 to 7 chronicles roughly two hours in the life of a young French singer who sullenly awaits possibly mortal test results from her doctor and in the meantime, wanders the streets of Paris crying, laughing, and realizing her true self for the first time. From the tarot card opening where Varda uses color cinematography fleetingly to establish a sort of fantasy Cleo will have to ultimately destroy, to Varda’s constant use of ambient sound that subtely reveals differing perceptions of beauty and success, the film is one large panorama of change, both physically, emotionally, and aestehtically. Mirrors, dissecting lines of people and transportation, i.e. the city landscape makes up Cleo’s playground and Varda carefully shows her progression through this urban jungle as shifting back and forth between doubt and joy, inevitably and thankfully ending with enlightenment. As Cleo reaches a state of awareness and humility, we understand that the filmmakers never questioned the need to treat the audience with anything less than the utmost respect, first and foremost by telling a great story.