Varda by Jon – Part 15: Beaches

In the distant past of April 2020, Chris and I dove deep into an episode of our podcast Cinema Dual on the films of French filmmaker Agnès Varda. Though technically not my first experience with Varda, that week of watching Varda’s movies was eye-opening, to such an extent that when Criterion announced they were going to release a Blu Ray box set of her complete filmography, I jumped at the chance to catch up on everything I had missed. Each post will cover 1 of the 15 discs in the set.

In the intro to Part 12 of this series, having just seen the trailer for The Matrix: Resurrections, I asked what it meant for Lana Wachowski to return to that series. The answer, explicitly stated in the film, was that Warner Bros was going to make another Matrix with or without her, and under those conditions, Wachowski signed on. I’m almost completely sure that no one was threatening Agnès Varda to make her own biopic without her involvement, but the first thing she clearly states at the beginning of The Beaches of Agnès (2008), is that she is playing a role of a person telling her own life story, but that it’s other people that interest her. The challenge of the project becomes how to reconcile these competing impulses.

The Beaches of Agnès (2008) - IMDb

To tell her own story, Varda draws on from her series of films in the 90s she made in tribute to her late partner Jacques Demy. She restages scenes from her childhood and youth, not to mention scenes from her own movies, as in Jacquot de Nantes. She visits Sète, the town where she started making movies, and mostly catches up with the townsfolk that were still there, as in The Young Girls Turn 25. She tracks down her childhood home, though even here she can’t resist the urge to ask the current homeowner about his miniature train collection.

Another way that Varda deals with the challenges of self-presentation is to obscure certain small factual details. Specifically, she plays fast and loose with chronology to the film’s benefit, like compressing her trips to California into one trip for example. Organizing the film around interesting ideas rather than a straightforward narrative makes for a compelling film, and the only reason I know Varda fudges small details is because I’ve been writing about her for just over a year at this point. The role that she plays for the audience to see is that of an artist whose work and relationships formed through that work have come to define of her life. And as always, Varda is cheeky enough to let people in on the joke.

As for the retrospective nature of a movie like this, The Beaches of Agnès does in fact cover a decent amount of ground of her career up until that point. While more attention goes towards La Pointe Courte because of what it represents, most of her work gets a brief mention, even short films like Black Panthers or Salut Les Cubains. But I think what I find the most captivating are the installations that Varda comes up with for the project. Varda sets up a fake beached whale for her to lounge inside like she was Jonah. Elsewhere, she enlists a trapeze act to perform on another beach. When talking about how her mom never gave her the birds and bees talk, we see a wide shot of a naked couple making love on a beach, eventually obscured by fishing nets.

Primal Scenes: Sur la plage avec Agnes

When I started this series with Varda By Agnès, I noted that starting with a career retrospective was a great starting point for prospective viewers of the Criterion box set. One year later, I’ve realized another thing. The Beaches of Agnès works better as a goodbye than Varda By Agnès, despite predating it by 11 years. I’m definitely not saying Varda should have stopped after The Beaches of Agnès, but I do think that picking her not last film as a final exclamation point is a little detail that Varda herself would have appreciated.

-Jon

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