In America, Agnes Varda is a filmmaker with an undeservingly minute position in how film is understood and taught, theoretically and historically. Until The Criterion Collection helped to popularize a number of her films with a boxed set, her name rarely escaped the footnotes of a Jean-Luc Godard biography or an essay of Jacques Demy. Her position in the arena of World Cinema should be much grander, and arguably equal to that of her husband Jacques Demy, or her close friends Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, and Godard.
It is indisputable that Agnes Varda’s background as a photographer has informed all of her films. Her primary concern as a filmmaker has always been with the ability of film, as a medium, to manipulate the experience of time. This same theme that has been at the forefront of her work since Cleo de 5 a 7 (1962) is the theme of her latest film, a sort of self portrait disguised as an autobiography, Les plages d’Agnes (2008).
Unlike most autobiographical film documentaries, Les plages d’Agnes does not represent the subject as a character, but rather the character of the subject. If one compares Werner Herzog’s film My Best Fiend (1999) with Les plages d’Agnes, several things quickly become apparent. Firstly, Herzog has always portrayed himself in the public as a “German Romantic”, and he adhere’s to this selfimposed charicature throughout My Best Fiend. In contrast, Varda presents her self as she is, surrounded by the artificial as manifest in excerpts from her narrative films that depict autobiographical representations of herself or through set pieces manufactured to recreate different locations as they appeared when she first experienced them. Secondly, Varda is not drawn to the past as a means to convey an entertaining narrative the way Herzog is. Instead, Varda recounts past events and significant people as a means to reflect on her life and her art circa 2008. This last stylistic division helps to pinpoint the debt of Varda’s films to her career as a photographer in the fifties. The films of Agnes Varda are always concerned with documenting the present, the original intent of photography.
The manner with which Varda populates Les plages d’Agnes with artificial representations derives from her fascination with the human experience of memory and duration. The set Varda had built to replicate her house as it appeared around the time she first met her husband Jacques Demy was designed from memory. This replication can never achieve an objective likeness, only a subjective one. And, as if to add some humor to this illusion, it is during this sequence that Varda introduces Chris Marker (1921-2012) into the film. Marker’s presence is only felt in voice over, accompanied by a visual representation taking the form of a giant cartoon cat. Marker’s questions for Varda further restate her conceptual roots in the avant-garde, having worked very early in her career with Alain Resnais and Marker himself. Not only does this help illuminate her concerns with memory and duration, but serves as a jumping off point from where Varda begins to describe her work as an installation video artist.
Les plages d’Agnes opens with Varda and her assistants installing an installation of mirrors on a beach in North Belgium, not far from Varda’s birth place. Intrestingly, Varda does not address her work with installation at the beginning of the film, she waits half an hour, and then peppers additional details in various sequences after that. Varda is not nostalgic (as she’s so fond of reminding us). And although the film is full of autobiographical information, it is not all that concerned with that information. The fact that the mirror installation is close to her birth place is not mentioned by Varda for some time, preferring to concintrate on describing the task at hand. This is the basis of the film’s linear construction.
Les plages d’Agnes is designed as Agnes Varda’s own personal stream of conciousness account of a day in her life. Varda segues from one topic to the next, linking each with a vague similarity involving theme, color, names, locale, etc. By doing this, one is forced not to examine Varda’s life as a journey from beginning to end, but as a living thing, with no clear trajectory and no objective logic. In fact, one could very easily compare the topical shifts of Les plages d’Agnes to the narrative leaps and bounds of Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad (1961).
The intimacy a film of this kind affords between subject, filmmaker and audience is entirely unique. Les plages d’Agnes gives the audience the sensation that they are traversing the mind of the artist as the film occurs, while in reality this manipulation has been carefully planned, staged, and edited to achieve this result. But the illusion of this shared experience still exists, and makes the audiences association with the subject much more organic than that between the audience and Werner Herzog in My Best Fiend. Herzog is not interested in a shared experience or the illusion of one with his audience in My Best Fiend, his intent is to communicate a history as he remembers it, a confession if you will. But the difference in cinematographic mechanics between Les plages d’Agnes and My Best Fiend are essential to illuminating Varda’s significance as a filmmaker. The experience of Varda’s film is “fact”, or at least the closest thing to fact that the cinema will allow. Meanwhile, My Best Fiend is a fiction. Herzog’s film only brings the audience information concerning himself and his muse Klaus Kinski via the soundtrack of the film, and the film image. Les plages d’Agnes achieves something closer to fact because it does everything Herzog’s film does in addition to employing montage as a means to convey the psychology of its subject.
Yet, the most satisfying part of Les plages d’Agnes has little to do with the theoretical aspects of Varda’s film, but derives exclusively from her “testimony” in the film. When ever Varda offers the audience either a clip from a film, a minute fact, a story involving a production, etc, it becomes clear how intentionally anthropological a filmmaker she is. Early in Les plages d’Agnes, Varda is describing why she loves the beach, and escorts the audience to all the seaside homes she had as a child. And at everyone of these seaside towns there are people who know her, from her childhood or later, and every town is also the location of one of her early short films. Varda then goes on to describe that with all of her narrative films she was attempting to capture the space and essence of a place within the frame. This revelation forces one to reassess almost all of Varda’s filmography, from La Pointe Courte (1955) to Lions Love (1969) and all the way to Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000).