A film evoking the poetic. She is poetic, Agnes Varda, her cinema has always travailed the gentler parts of life. The landscape of Agnes’ mind is filled with beaches, she says, introducing us to this film in which she discusses her own thoughts, opens her mind. “The sea, the sea, the sea renewed forever” – calling upon Paul Valery and his poem, Cemetery by the Sea:
High noon appeases with a brilliant flame
the sea, the sea, the sea renewed forever;
what a prize here for the intellects’s endeavor
O silence, edifice within the soul
vaulted with gold in countless sparking tiles!
At one point while reflecting on her time spent as a photographer, Agnes reflects on the aesthetic beauty of disintegrating photographs. She compares certain photographs, worn and ageing, to the cracked, stained plaster on her own ceiling. Did photography not provide enough of a base for Agnes, a strong enough foundation (or protective cover) for her life? Later she is asked why she shifted from photography into the cinema. “I remember wanting words. I thought if you pared images with words you’d get cinema,” she said. Is this what we get? With Agnes we do. Both can tell a story, both are important to us as humans, as spectators, as film family.
Agnes relays her experiences of the feminist struggle in France; it has to be collective to exist, she says, as anything else will impair the overall forward motion of the movement. This makes sense; nothing can be achieved alone. Agnes recalls that she tried to be a cheerful feminist but she became very angry at a lot of things that oppressed and repressed women, laws and esteemed opinions that deemed women unnecessary and their presence immoderate. Along with Delphine Seyrig, she signed a manifesto for women’s abortion rights, “The Manifesto of the 343 Bitches.”
Agnes Varda did a lot, as a woman. Her 1955 debut feature film, La Pointe Courte, was made roughly four years before Godard’s À bout de souffle and for much less money; she is not often credited but she was as much at the helm of the French New Wave as any of the male directors around. Alain Resnais worked with Agnes of La Pointe Courte, and the two developed a working relationship and kinship amongst the Left Bank filmmakers in France. Agnes makes reference to this in Beaches, filming her courtyard and revealing its presence in films for Resnais. She shows piles of film canisters, mentioning Chris Marker, and her Left Bank association with this other prominent essay filmmaker.
At one point in The Beaches of Anges, she films Jacques Demy, focusing on his face, his eyes, his hair, with such intensity that each of them could be a landscape. His greys, his spots, his matter, are all part of his presence on screen; a life that too became defined by his cinema. She finished shooting for Jacquot de Nantes ten days before Demy’s death; ‘Jacques dying, but Jacques still alive’, she narrates, a testament to the power of cinema to reflect life and elicit memory. She says, of her children and their families; ‘Together they are the sum of my happiness. But I don’t know if I know them, or understand them. I just go toward them.’ Drawn, she understands their importance to her and their effect on her life, her mood. She knows that this family is an integral part of her life; all the same, we know that her cinema is.
These ties to celluloid, to the physical practice and tangible presence of film, penetrate Beaches throughout, without the exigent urgency that is so common these days in discussion of film, but nonetheless, with a heartfelt honour. So much of her life has been spent surrounded by negatives, my images, by music, and all of it still exists in a lens. What is released from her memory, from her reflection, exists in some ways on film. She finishes the film walking toward a pile of film canisters, and she sits on them. Gleaner that I am, Agnes muses. ‘What is cinema? Light coming from somewhere, captured by images more or less dark or colourful.’ She is in a glass house, a small room contained, and its walls are draped with strips of celluloid; of her own films. Agnes has just opened herself up to her audience, opened her mind and walked the beaches within it; in the end, she is isolated, and all that surrounds her are the films that she made. These films define her on a broad scale, amongst cinephiles and fans, but they are even more important than that. This film particularly, an essay film, is an extension of herself. All films become an extension of herself.