Agnès Varda – the Grand Dame of French New Wave Cinema – has lived one rich and vibrant life. And in Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès) this is captured perfectly. The film is a strange documentary that is helmed by the doyenne art house director and lovable eccentric, as she candidly takes us by the hand and walks us through her remarkable life that has been filled with love, laughter and loss.
Born Arlette Varda in Brussels, Belgium, she was raised as a French child due to her mother’s ancestry. She was the self-described “independent” middle child of five kids and the daughter of Eugène Jean Varda, an engineer whose family were originally refugees from Greece. She remembers that her childhood was spent with many vacations to the beach before the family moved to the seaside town of Setè during the Second World War. It was here that she developed an affinity with the water and a love of photography and the latter grew into an appreciation of film (even though at age 26 she admitted to having only seen ten full-length features).
La Pointe Courte would mark her directorial debut. It was a film that showed a couple’s marriage deteriorating whilst set in a seaside town. At age 80 Varda revisits the place and discovers that a street has been named in her honour. The self-deprecating star also finds out what the child actors are doing now. As the film continues, one can’t help but feel like Varda is curious and intrigued more by other people than her own life, and it should come as no surprise that her films use a combination of fictional and biographical (or documentary-style) elements, as she borrows stories and anecdotes from the people around her.
In Les plages d’Agnès, Varda uses a mostly chronological style to recount the events from her life, including the films she has made (like: Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7) and Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond)). But this documentary is anything but linear and at times verges on the downright weird. She looks happy as she revisits old places and recreates old scenes alongside archival footage and photos as well as adding the odd digression and aside. Some of the stranger scenes are when she allows herself to be interviewed by the camera shy, Chris Marker whose voice has been masked and whose features are replaced by those of an animated cat.
These days Varda seems more at home as a visual artist, creating multimedia, art installations out of digital footage while coupling together videos and objects. These images can be quite striking at times and are often reminiscent of her early days as a photographer taking shots of Fidel Castro and in communist China. One pitfall of this film is that there is a lot of assumed knowledge by Varda and while new fans of hers may choose this film as a primer or introduction to her work, it is worthwhile to have more than just a passing interest to her filmography.
Over the years Varda has worked with and befriended lots of amazing celebrities and stars like musician, Jim Morrison; actors, Harrison Ford, Gérard Depardieu andCatherine Deneuve; and filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard. Varda would also share a long marriage with fellow director, Jacques Demy and would make a number of films dedicated to him, including, Jacquot de Nantes. Demy died from AIDs in 1990 and Varda is shown later in a mournful scene where she throws flowers underneath a large black and white portrait of her late husband.
Agnès Varda describes herself as: “Pleasantly plump and talkative” and in Les plages d’Agnès she invites us all to have a coffee and a chat with her. This effervescent and charismatic woman is engaging, entertaining and creative as she nostalgically recalls and visits some interesting points in her life. This poetic and whimsical visual memoir is both playful and heartfelt, weird and engrossing and is a great portrait and celebration of a vivacious bohemian and her even more colourful life.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
ACMI Melbourne is running a season of Agnes Varda films titled “Joyous Curiosity: The Cinema of Agnès Varda” from June 19. For more information please visit: http://www.acmi.net.au/cinema-of-agnes-varda.aspx