There is a difference between biography and autobiography. The first explores the events of a life, while attempting a true and representative narrative. The second is a construction, a series of choices made by the person telling the story, an attempt to set down a version of themselves that they can own. One’s view of one’s own life, even from a position of advanced age, has little perspective. It can only by subjective. It is an act of creation.
Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès, 2008) is an autobiography. Agnès Varda’s film shows us the story of her life: people, events and work. But the story isn’t the person, though it encapsulates the person, held as we are by the events of our life as a drop of dew is held by its own shape. And yet Les Plages d’Agnès does show Agnès Varda, not just her story. It does it in a way that is smart, controlled and magnificent – much like Varda herself. She reveals herself not so much by what she tells, interesting as this is, but by the way that she tells it. It is by seeing how she makes this story of her life that we are able to see her.
“I play the role of a little old lady, plump and chatty”, Varda says very early in the film. Amid the wealth of information and imagery that follows, such a small line is easily forgotten. It shouldn’t be. Varda says it while walking backwards on the sand, an image that she returns to frequently. If Varda is playing a role, can we believe that this autobiography is truthful? It is not hard to verify the facts of her life. She isn’t lying. So what is the difference between lying and acting? What indeed is the difference between the telling of one’s story and the showing of one’s self? Varda says that if she were to be opened up, the landscape found within her would be a beach. So she wants to open herself up. Why else call her piece Les Plages d’Agnès? She wants to show herself. But to tell her story isn’t enough – it doesn’t show her, only what she has done. The same goes for showing itself. The body we see holds the person within it, but is doesn’t show the person any more than a bottle shows you the taste of the wine. Varda understands that people are always mysterious. A true autobiography can only be a mystery – a series of clues, a collaboration between the author and the audience. By telling us she is playing a role, Varda give us her first clue.
“I play the role.” Acting is a kind of hiding, and Varda frequently shows us herself by hiding. We can see this in how this film talks to us about Jacques Demy – her husband from 1962 to his death in 1990. We come to Demy through his death. Looking at her photographs of friends from the Théâtre National Populaire, Varda tells us that all she sees now, as an old woman (though neither plump not chatty) is that they are dead. In front of their photographs, and then at Demy’s grave (Demy: “The most beloved of the dead”) she scatters flowers: roses and begonias (1). This symbolic and almost ridiculous gesture is a theatrical representation of a very real grief. The staging is a surface. It’s like a dustcover, whose undulations indicate the true form of what lies beneath but allows us no detail. Grief is private, after all.
Throughout the film Demy is placed at this distance. Although the most beloved, the partner, husband, father, his presence is ephemeral, shown but not shown. His privacy is respected. Varda tells us he died of AIDS but not how he contracted the disease, whether he was gay or bisexual, and how this may have affected her and their relationship. In a film about herself how can Varda be so quiet about such a significant issue in a central relationship? And yet, is she really telling us so little? Following Demy to Hollywood she seems as lost as she is seduced by the city. Time is confused, one stay in LA melting into another. “I hesitate to remember these things. I don’t want to.” “This is the end of the line”, she says (walking backwards) at the pier at Venice Beach, “as far west as you can go. The end of hope.” Clips from her film Documenteur (1981) dwell on a painful lover’s quarrel observed by chance. Sabine Mamou, talks on the phone about the breakup of her relationship. “I don’t believe it, not you two!” says the voice on the other end of the phone. “You got along so well….” Mamou’s tears. A shot of Varda from the time. A shot of Mamou from the film, echoing Varda’s pose. A shot of a Picasso painting, a woman’s head, all but exploding with grief. “I see she was another me”, Varda says. The mournful celebration of the love of her friends Patricia Knop and Zalman King on the beach is full of both joy and a dull sense of exclusion (2). Perhaps everything Varda wants to say about her relationship with Demy at this time is here. Again, she creates her self-portrait not by what she says, or even what she hides, but how she structures what she shows.
There is much showing in the film. It is almost over ripe with extraordinary tableaux, from the opening sequence with the mirrors, through the belly of the whale, the beach on the street and the trapeze artists. The most complex and powerful of these tableaux is the evening procession of a cart through the streets of Sète. On the cart is a projector and screen. Being shown are tests Varda made for her first film, La Pointe Courte (1955) using friends (a couple, the husband suffering from a cancer that would shortly kill him) instead of the actors. Pushing the cart are the two sons of this couple watching, as they push, for the first time, moving images of a father they cannot remember. The beauty, layering and complexity of this image is staggering. It tells us nothing of Varda’s life that is of pertinence. We know she made this film. It is unsurprising that there were tests. What we get instead is the woman who made the image, who could imagine it, who had the force to make it real, who staged it so simply, filmed it so aptly, placed it so justly in a complex and highly structured film. Such sensibility married to such ability, and more importantly, the impulse to create such images – this is the self-portrait of Varda that matters.
“How lovely, the old filmmaker becoming the young artist” (3), Varda says, towards the end of the film, commenting on her move into the word of fine art. But, of course, Varda was always an artist. Starting as a photographer, her work as a filmmaker never settled into any genre or form, neither narrative nor documentary nor essay. She is constantly exploring and her work is many things, just as she is: the efficient money getter who is also the vulnerable widow, the woman of such intense intelligence who is drawn to a heart-shaped potato, the elegant and lauded filmmaker who wanders the Venice Biennale dressed as a potato. Les Plages d’Agnès is a film of similar density, contradictions and provocations. Varda allows both what she shows and what she hides to reflect herself with the same accuracy as the mirrors she props and balances on the sand reflect the constantly changing face of the sea.
1. Why begonias? Do they have a special meaning in France? To her? To her and Demy? We don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter because the raising of questions, even without answers, is always of interest.
2. Exclusion is something that seems central to this film, though again, not something directly discussed. At the age of 18 Varda committed the extraordinary action of changing her first name form Arlette to Agnès – a gesture that powerfully separates herself from her birth family. Towards the end of her film, though she speaks beautifully about her devotion and reliance on them, she separates herself visually from the family she has created (her children and grandchildren). On the beach, her interior landscape, they are dressed in white with Varda alone in black. Although the annoying and somewhat patronizing phrase “the godmother of the nouvelle vague” is frequently applied to her, she never seems to have been a full member of that particular group, nor is there any sense that she wanted to be. She rigorously ploughs a private furrow with her work, her career following no clear structure other than her own curiosity. And despite the many powerful female friendships she documents in this film, she is often the only woman in a society of men, from the fishermen in Corsica to the filmmakers of the nouvelle vague.
3. As so often, translation diminishes. “Plasticienne”, the French word that Varda uses rather than the equally valid “artiste” is rich, complex and evocative. It gives a real sense of three-dimensional physicality, of molding and forming (including the molding of the old into the young), that the translation fails to carry.
Les Plages d’Agnès/The Beaches of Agnès (2008 France 110 mins)
Prod Co: Ciné Tamaris/Arte France Cinéma Prod, Dir, Scr: Agnès Varda Phot: Julia Fabry, Hélène Louvart, Arlene Nelson, Alain Sakot, Agnès Varda Ed: Baptiste Filloux, Jean-Baptiste Morin Prod Des: Franckie Diago Mus: Joanna Bruzdowicz, Stéphane Vilar