Monday, June 29, 2009

Varda on Varda: The Beaches of Agnès

Agnès Varda has been called the Grandmother of the French Nouvelle Vague, for directing the New Wave classic Cleo from 5 to 7, casting Philippe Noiret is his first screen role, and marrying Jacques Demy, the celebrated director of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. She is also handy to have around if you have a fishing-net that needs mending. Having spent significant time living and working by various seashores, The Beaches of Agnès is a fittingly literal title for Varda’s highly idiosyncratic cinematic memoir (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Varda sets the playfully surreal mood right from the start, introducing herself as the “pleasingly plump and talkative” protagonist, while her production crew sets up a series of antique mirrors on one of her many beaches. As befitting the Grand Dame of the New Wave, there are no hard-and-fast rules for her memory documentary. Some episodes from her life she recreates relatively faithfully, while others she revisits through her archival film and photographs.

Though one would not expect it from such a risk-taking filmmaker, Varda emerges as something of a sentimentalist, revisiting and restaging many of the sites and events of her largely happy early life. However, she declines to return to Cuba and China, whose Communist revolutions she venerated through extensive photo series, thereby sparing herself any uncomfortable realities which might challenge cherished memories.

Clearly, Beaches is Varda’s subjective reality. Rather than exhaustively recount her life, she takes us inside her head in a series of impressionistic episodes inspired by her experiences and films (some of which work better than others). However, the place of honor afforded to her late husband is unmistakable. In Beaches¸ Varda confirms Demy’s death was the result of complications arising from AIDS, which evidently was not widely reported at the time. During his final months, Varda raced to complete Jacquot de Nantes, a film dramatizing Demy’s childhood experiences, based on his own autobiographical writings. In fact, Beaches would form an excellent double-bill with Nantes, whose cast and crew reunite with Varda to pay tribute to their beloved friend and colleague.

While Varda’s tributes to Demy are probably the most touching moments of the film, she never revels in the maudlin. She clearly prefers to present herself as an eccentric prankster, attending her own museum exhibition in a potato costume and hiding the identity of a famous filmmaker colleague behind a big Garfield-like cartoon cat. At least it keeps the film’s pacing brisk and minimizes the risk of excessive navel gazing.

While it is hard to envision Beaches’s appeal expanding beyond enthusiasts of the Varda’s films and the French New Wave in general, Varda’s style is quite accessible. Though understandably uneven due to its episodic nature, Varda proves to be a charismatic subject and host throughout Beaches. Cineastes and Francophiles should definitely look forward to its Wednesday (7/1) New York opening at the Film Forum.

Photo credit: Cinema Guild