Octogenarian filmmaker Agnès Varda’s cinematic autobiography The Beaches of Agnès is among her best films, but looks likely to be her swansong to cinema. Anna Rogers looks over the great career of the ‘grandmother’ of the French New Wave
There are rumours that Agnès Varda’s 2008 cinematic autobiography The Beaches of Agnès is her last film. For any octogenarian filmmaker, this might seem like the logical conclusion to a prolific career, but Varda is no ordinary artist. When she approaches the camera at the beginning of her latest work and tells us that she is ‘playing’ at being an old woman, we have good reason to believe her and cannot help but think that she has many stories left to tell.
To say that Agnès Varda is one of the most important filmmakers of the feminist canon isn’t erroneous, it’s just that she is also, quite simply, one of the most inventive, intuitive, warm and human directors in the history of cinema. She is often fondly referred to as the ‘grandmother’ of Le Nouvelle Vague because of her artistic collaboration with filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, and while this association has been an important one for Varda, it has not defined or limited the scope of her work. Above all, she is a cinematic renegade: like Mona, the inscrutable heroine of her film Vagabond, Varda walks her own unique path.
As she did in Jacquot de Nantes, her cinematic paean to her late husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy, Varda takes a highly idiosyncratic and un-solipsistic approach to relating her own history in The Beaches of Agnès. The film starts with a shot of the director standing on a beach and organising with precision a multiplicity of mirrors that reflect and refract not only her figure, but also those of the camera crew who are capturing this moment on film. Here we have the essence of Varda’s style: the mirror may be what she refers to as ‘the tool of the self-portrait’, but we are never wholly isolated from the world around us in this reflected image. For Varda, the people we meet and the experiences we have in life mirror our ‘selves’ back to us and shape us into the beings that we are.
This awareness of a community requires an adjustment in one’s vision, however. Varda’s characters, whether they are fictional or documentary subjects, are people in the process of learning how to look at the world, and through their eyes we come to see the world differently, too. In Cléo from 5 to 7, she gave us a young woman in the process of learning to see rather than be seen. This change in consciousness is vital for Cléo who, by the end of the film, no longer defines herself as a passive object of desire but as an existential being who is immersed in the world around her.
In The Gleaners and I, Varda makes us look at what is normally erased from the traditional cinematic image – the detritus of ordinary life, be it discarded goods from a food market or aging skin. Suddenly we notice with acute clarity what we might normally ignore in the everyday. Varda’s work can change you and discovering her films can be somewhat like undergoing a cinematic rite of passage.
Something the viewer will notice instantly when watching Varda’s latest work is the sheer scope of her cinematic language; she uses every tool she has, from staging re-enactments of real events from her past to creating moments of mise-en-abîme in which we see actors watching their former selves onscreen, in order to blur continually the line between documentary and fiction filmmaking; indeed, she claims that there is very little difference between these two styles for her because she is not a filmmaker who is invested in trying to present an objective truth. The viewpoint Varda takes in her films is always a located and individual one; it is not the eye of a god that is all-knowing and all-seeing. Yet everything she creates possesses ‘the texture of reality’ to such an extent that what she offers us in the end is a more universally true vision of life, because it is an utterly human one.
Artificial Eye are releasing two box sets of Agnès Varda’s films: Vol. 1 (released 5 Oct) includes La Pointe Courte, Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond and The Gleaners and I. Vol. 2 (released Feb 2010) includes The Beaches of Agnes, Jacquot de Nantes, Le Bonheur, L’une Chante and L’Autre Pas.