The cinema, social theorist and sometime filmmaker Edgar Morin argued, is the model for our “mental commerce” with the world. Even awake and in the street, Morin wrote, we walk in solitary daydreams, “surrounded by a cloud of images. . . . The substance of the imaginary is mixed up with our life of the soul.”
Filmmaker Agnès Varda agrees, and since her 1990 documentary-cum-staged-portrait of her critically ill husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy, Morin’s idea of “semi-imaginary reality” has been Varda’s subject. The great idiosyncratic original of the French nouvelle vague generation, Varda began her career as a photographer and, in her use of the medium, remains one at heart. Features and documentaries are equally characterized by a fascination with the found and the serendipitous, capturing the momentary and pondering the ways in which memory becomes something tangible—or the way memory shapes the world.
The interplay of past and present—typical of Jacquot de Nantes and Varda’s subsequent first-person essays, The Gleaners and I and Cinévardaphoto—reaches its apogee with The Beaches of Agnès, a memoir drawing on the 81-year-old artist’s films and photographs as well as her recollections. It’s also a vehicle: “I’m playing the role of a little old lady, talkative and plump,” she tells us up front. A stylized creature—small and sturdy, with bowl-cut hair and a proud baton of a nose—Varda is, to some degree, self-invented (having changed her name as a teenager from the ultra-French “Arlette” to the more austere “Agnès”) and highly self-aware, directing her assistants to set up a half-dozen mirrors on the windswept Belgian seaside as Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” wells up on the soundtrack.
The beach is not only a superb location in which to frame an individual, but the place where people confront the infinite or discover traces of the past washed up onshore. Varda equates those who gaze at the sea with Ulysses; she herself is often dreaming of home. The artist re-creates childhood tableaux using old family photos; redeploys footage documenting her first meeting with her Greek relations; and revisits homes of her youth in Brussels and the Mediterranean port Sète, where her family relocated during World War II and where, at 26, she made her first movie, the low-budget neorealist experiment La pointe-courte. Other film locations are recalled, notably Los Angeles (“such an intense pleasure to live there”). Associates drop by or are recalled: Jane Birkin appears in several guises (including as Stan Laurel); Chris Marker materializes in the form of his trademark cartoon cat; and Jim Morrison is evoked. But mainly, the movie is benignly haunted by Demy.
The Beaches of Agnès documents Varda’s artistic growth, along with her life, as she evolves from bustling scene-maker to self-conscious autobiographer. Her sense of filmmaking is modest, yet baroque; her sensibility is fey, but tough. Impressed as a girl by the surrealists, she has continued to cultivate their taste for flea markets and crazy contraptions. The installations that populate Beaches have both elements: Varda’s most elaborate setup dumps truckloads of sand on the Rue Daguerre to create an alfresco production office in the middle of Montparnasse. Another has walls of unspooled 35mm film, fashioned from Varda’s 1966 science-fiction flop Les créatures, fashioned into an imaginary home.
This highly personal filmmaker not only made her husband’s biography as he was dying of AIDS (the specific disease is something she makes public only in Beaches), but she put her children in her movies and used her courtyard as a studio—here, re-created in a “real” studio. The mental commerce between Varda’s life and her work is resolutely two-way. Her two great fiction films—Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) and Vagabond (1985), each featuring a strongly delineated existential heroine—were closer to psychodrama than anyone imagined them to be. In a sense, Varda has done for herself what she did for Demy—creating a work, as charming as it is touching, that serves to explicate and enrich an entire oeuvre.