The sands of time

Time Out New York Project: Issue #718, July 2-July 8, 2009

Agnès Varda remembers past and present in The Beaches of Agnès.

By Keith Uhlich

You can speak with Agnès Varda about almost anything, but it’s best not to bring up the French New Wave. When reached by phone at her Paris-based production company Ciné Tamaris, the mere mention of this most famous of film movements leads her to retort, “Why should memory always be nostalgic?” All apologies to this great director, but as her latest film arrives in NYC, we’d like to indulge in a little stage-setting history, hopefully unclouded by sentiment and yearning.

In 1954, several years before The Four Hundred Blows and Breathless effectively altered the course of Gallic (and world) cinema, the then 25-year-old Varda made the documentary-fiction hybrid La pointe-courte. Mimicking the structure of William Faulkner’s novel The Wild Palms, the film alternates scenes of life in the titular French fishing village with an entirely made-up love story between a nameless woman and man (Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret). It barely created a stir outside of cinéaste circles, but it was the first sign of a mammoth sea change that would give rise to such touchstones as Cahiers du cinéma and the director’s own Cléo from 5 to 7.

Varda revisits both the location and the movie itself, among numerous other things in The Beaches of Agnès, a video-shot scrapbook in which she quite literally walks back through her own life—though not necessarily in a straight line. “The film is not about me,” says Varda, 81. It’s about people who have made me. People who have nourished me, enjoyed me, made me feel bad. Everybody is always there. I try to have them invade the film.”

Invade seems a harsh term, especially in light of Beaches’ generosity of spirit. It’s a work that spirals outward from its subject, incorporating such seemingly disparate threads as the Black Panthers, a sexually explicit Magritte homage, Harrison Ford, erotica auteur Zalman King and frank discussions about Varda’s deceased husband, Jacques Demy. It takes the La pointe-courte diptych structure to a dizzying extreme: Events, people, ideas and places are juggled and juxtaposed so that we’re always aware of their separateness, even as they somehow coexist within the same space. “Contradiction is the base of my film,” she says, “I’ve come to understand that private life and collective life are in a way impossible to mix. You have to accept that they are side by side. They never meld together. I think my film is an unidentified flying object.”

Varda’s observations may read impenetrably on the page, but they’re illuminating in motion. Yet as noted by her daughter, Rosalie, also reached by phone, Beaches didn’t originate with her mother: “[One of Agnès’s] assistant directors said he’d like to do a film on her. They began to work together, but it soon became obvious that she was doing her own documentary. So I, and even the assistant, said she should do it herself.”

If that sounds like a case of ego trumping all, the elder Varda’s boundless energy and curiosity show otherwise. Making the obligatory stop at her childhood home, she finds herself more interested in the current inhabitants than in recreating the past in any detail. There’s no need for that dread nostalgia. She’ll remember and recollect without ever losing sight of where she is at a given moment, as when, during our talk, she restates a line from her documentary The Young Girls Turn 25: “Memory of happiness is maybe some happiness.”

Varda is ecstatic with audience reaction to Beaches thus far. “I’m glad people take it as it is,” she says of the works reception at festivals and in France. “I’ve never gotten so many letters.” What’s the key to its appeal? Daughter Rosalie’s description says it best: “It’s not a documentary. It’s not fiction. It’s something else.”