Originally published in Senses of Cinema issue 67, July 2013.
S’imaginer très vieille est amusante
(To imagine yourself very old is amusing)
Agnès Varda celebrates her eightieth birthday during the making of Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès, 2008), which, she films, as she puts it, “à reculons” (‘backwards’). From the beaches of Belgium to the beaches of Noirmoutier, Varda recycles her life story through recuperated photographs and film stock, narration and installation. Looking directly at the camera, Varda tells us that her life is about loving Jacques Demy, painting, family, puzzles, and loving Jacques Demy: motifs throughout the film, which provide a loose, meandering structure, an associative technique not unlike turning the pages of a family scrapbook and pausing to linger on a detail that sparks a memory, and then going off in a different direction. Press material for the film described it as an “auto-bio-filmo-puzzlo self-portrait.” (1)
“Je me souviens pendant que je vis” (“I remember while I live”), Varda tells us at the end of Les plages d’Agnès. Some of those beloved friends and family, whose photographs she shows us, suffer from loss of memory, and some have died; Varda creates temporary installations for strangers so that we will not forget them: les Justes (‘the Just’) in particular, but les veuves of Noirmoutier (‘the widows of Noirmoutier’), also.
What I propose, in my essay, is to present the portraits of old age that Agnès Varda gives us in Les plages d’Agnès; how she combines documentary and fantasy to transpose loss into memory, and how she uses humour, sometimes, to protest the ravages of time.
Portraiture, like cinematography, is all about framing. In an interview (2) Varda tells us that the danger for her in making Les plages d’Agnès was that the film might turn out to be “un déballage non contrôlé” (‘an uncontrolled outpouring’). She continues, “je joue mon rôle, une volonté de se représenter avec humour, m’amuser avec le projet, … je joue à faire un auto-portrait” (“I play my role, a will to depict myself with humour, to have fun with the project, … I play at making a self-portrait”). The first scenes in the film, scenes that she co-directed with her friend Didier Rouget, can be seen then to play with the multiple possibilities of framing its subject, Agnès Varda in old age, looking back on and documenting her life, as she says in the film’s first line, “Je joue le rôle d’une petite vieille rondouillarde et bavarde” (“I play the role of a pudgy and chatty little old lady.”)
In the first scene there are multiple reflections, framed by mirrors, and mirrors framed, on easels, at least five – Varda studied art history at the Ecole du Louvre; puddles on the beach, which give us inverted images – Varda tells us that most people, if opened up, would have a landscape inside them, but that she’d have a beach; one of the mirrors reminds Varda of a piece of furniture from her childhood home in Brussels; and a standing full-length, three-panelled mirror, not unlike the three screens in her installation Le triptyque de Noirmoutier (2005), which she unfolds with the help of the young members of her crew, whose portraits she subsequently insists on framing, having them look into another mirror, while gazing at the camera hors champ. (3)
As the credits roll, framed by what resembles the dimensions of a cinema screen, constructed on the beach, surfers pass by, waves roll in and out; we hear music in Varda’s travelling shot with sailboats (4), and there’s what appears to be a cargo ship moving in the background. In a director’s chair facing the sea, Agnès Varda recites the names of these Belgian beaches, Knokke-le-Zoute, Blankenberg, Ostend, Middelkerke, Mariakerke, De Panne and Zeebrugge, which, she tells us, are delicious sounds for her. In the sand, she writes the name “Arlette,” which is washed away by the waves as Varda, Agnès, begins to document her life: born in Arles, her parents named her Arlette; but at the age of 18, she changed her name to Agnès, which she had recorded in the registry of the town hall in Sète, where her mother and four siblings had moved to live on an anchored sailboat during the Occupation.
Agnès Varda tells us that she is not nostalgic about her childhood: “J’ai pas beaucoup de rapports à mon enfance” (“I don’t have many ties to my childhood”). In the dunes, she shows us photos, some framed, of the five Varda children, herself included. Fantasy is combined with documentary when she recreates the scenes in the photos of herself, a little girl, dressed in striped bathing suit and strapped bathing suit, with children today whom she has had dress in similar outfits for the camera: “Moi, je rêve de voir une petite fille en maillot de bain rayé et un autre avec de grandes bretelles” (“I dream of seeing a little girl in a striped bathing suit and in another suit with big straps”). If she reconstructs her childhood self as photographed with today’s youth, she turns the camera, amusingly sometimes, on her ageing self, often in close-up, on her hands, her hair, whose colour she’s letting grow out, from auburn to gray, which often disrupts the continuity of the film, reminding us that this film is a reconstructed memory about growing old and a projection about what being really old might be like: “J’ai toujours aimé faire entrer des vieux de très grands âges” (“I always liked to put very old people in my films.”)
Immediately after we see an old woman using a walker, coming towards the camera, we see her kerchiefed-face in a hand-held mirror, a shot reminiscent of the image that is often used in psychology textbooks to test perception – if you look at the image one way it’s a young, attractive woman; if you look another way, it’s an old crone – Varda walking backwards on the beach, tells us that she’s amused, playing this role of an old lady in her film; as director, she inserts a nude shot of a very old woman, ‘du quatrième âge’ (‘in her eighties’), Mme Veuve Justin Jarnias, née Boulay, Marthes, who agreed to pose for Varda’s short film 7p., cuis., s. de b., … à saisir (1984), made in Avignon, on the site of the hospice Saint-Louis, where Louis Bec’s exhibit Le vivant et l’artificiel, provided Varda with her inspiration:
“[…] grâce au rêve de plumes de Christian Tobas et Jean Tartaroli, j’ai découvert une salle de bains comme on n’en fait plus, tapissée, molletonnée et complètement habitée par des plumes de poules blanches. Et j’y ai filmé une femme nue, une très douce et très vieille femme assise sur une chaise pendant qu’il neige des plumes. Elle semblait un peu enceinte et distraite […]”
(“thanks to Christian Tobas and Jean Tartaroli’s dream of feathers, I discovered a bathroom like they don’t make anymore, wallpapered, lined with swansdown, and completely covered in white chicken feathers. And I filmed a naked woman in it, a very gentle and very old woman seated on a chair while it snows feathers. She seemed a bit pregnant and absent-minded…) (5)
For Varda, who believes that “les personages de films sont aussi vrais que faux, les acteurs aussi faux que vrais” (“film characters are as true as they are false, actors as false as they are true”) (6), an anecdote proves illustrative:
“Mireille Henrio, cinéphile rencontrée dans la rue, s’était proposée pour un coup de main. Elle ne savait pas ce qui l’attendait. Elle fut mandatée pour trouver la très vieille dame qui accepterait de poser nue. Je crois savoir que la drague fut dure, particulièrement avec les vieilles dures d’oreille à qui elle devait répéter trois fois en hurlant: C’est pour un film. Est-ce que vous accepteriez de poser nue? Dans l’avenue de la République, elle en aborda une qui, contre toute attente, répondit: Si je ne fais pas ça maintenant, quand est-ce que je le ferai?”
(“Mireille Henrio, a cinéphile I met on the street, offered to lend a hand. She didn’t know what she was getting into. She was elected to find the very old lady who would accept to pose nude. I think I know how hard this was, particularly with old women hard of hearing to whom she had to repeat three times yelling: It’s for a film. Would you accept to pose nude? On Avenue de la République, she accosted one who, contrary to all expectations, answered: If I don’t do that now, when will I do it?”)
True story of a woman, whom Varda remembers fondly, whose age is captured on film; a film in contrast to Réponse de femmes, a seven-minute ciné-tract made almost ten years earlier, in 1975, for Antenne 2, in response to the question, Qu’est-ce qu’être femme? (What is being a woman?), where Varda has one of the women look directly into the camera and say, “on nous empêche de vieillir” (“they won’t let us grow old”). We are reminded of Simone de Beauvoir who wrote in the introduction to La Vieillesse, which appeared in 1970, that when she told people that she was working on a study of old age, they generally exclaimed, “What an extraordinary notion!… But you aren’t old!… What a dismal subject.” And that, she claimed, was precisely the reason that she was writing the book. She meant to break the conspiracy of silence. (7) Though Varda’s Les plages d’Agnès is a much more personal and playful look at old age, and, of course, the status of the elderly has changed since the 1970s, her work is confrontational in its own way. To treat with humour, and tenderness, what has previously been dismissed as a dismal subject is to entertain the subject of old age in new and unforeseen ways.
When considering Agnès Varda’s use of humour to treat old age – aging and memory – it’s useful to take into account Varda’s relationship with surrealism, which she cites throughout Les plages d’Agnès – Magritte’s Lovers (Magritte’s Belgian, by the way); the famous collage of surrealists’ headshots, their eyes closed, with a nude woman in the centre of the page (replaced with snapshots of La nouvelle vague filmmakers, all men, their eyes open, with Varda’s face in the centre of their midst), e.g. – as well as her use of surrealist techniques: chance, found objects, provocative images, and word play. Her memory of her father Eugène, for example, turns on the word père/perd (‘father/lose’) as Varda films the Casino on the beach, in which he had a heart attack and died, chance, which is evocative of her meandering camera technique throughout the film.
Mixed in with the photographs of friends and family, missing or lost in some way, are photos of anonymous people and family groups, some pictures found and purchased at the Marché aux Puces, and now framed and hung on a wall in Varda’s apartment/studio, her home and production company Ciné Tamaris in Paris; others unnamed, young Jewish girls, whom scout leaders from Varda’s girlhood, without Varda or the other girls knowing, regularly helped pass unnoticed into Switzerland on one of their mountain hikes in the Alps. Varda will make similar use of photos, film and anonymous persons in her installation Hommage aux Justes de France, commissioned by the French government and exhibited at the Panthéon in Paris (and televised live), and La Miroiterie in Avignon (2007), which commemorates those who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust. (8)
The fishing village, La Pointe-Courte, outside Sète where she grew up, can be seen as a lieu de mémoire, where a street now ceremoniously named for Varda marks a collective memory. La Pointe-Courte (1955), title of Varda’s first film, considered by many to be the first film of La nouvelle vague, alternates between two stories, one that documents the lives of the Pointois fishermen, and another that tells the story of a fictional couple, Philippe Noiret, in his first role, and Sylviane Montfort. Combination of fantasy and documentary, which allows Varda to portray her friends, Suzanne and Pierre, stand-ins for the couple when Varda worked out scenes, and lets her friends’ children Blaise and Vincent see, for the first time, their father, now dead from cancer, in motion on a big screen. Suzanne, one of the three Schlegel sisters, Andrée, Suzanne, and Linu, childhood friends from the years that Varda, her mother and siblings, lived on a boat, opposite the Schlegel balcony on the quai in Sète, now 82, tells Varda that she has some memory loss, “la mémoire me fait un peu défaut” (“my memory is failing me a bit”), “jolie façon de le dire” (“nice way of saying it”), sums up Varda. And Andrée, who married Jean Vilar, founder of the Festival d’Avignon (1947), an artist who’s losing her memory, remembers and recites poetry by heart, “Midi le juste,” the name of their villa, and a line from Valéry’s poem, “Le Cimetière marin.”
In 2007, when Varda was invited to exhibit her photographs from the first years of the Avignon Festival, at the Chapelle St. Charles, in Avignon, photos of Jean Vilar, Maria Casarès, Anne and Gérard Philipe, which she arranged in what appears to be the squares of a puzzle, she wondered, “est-ce qu’on peut reconstituer ce personnage de Jean Vilar qui était tout à fait exceptionnel?” (“can you recreate this Jean Vilar character, who was quite exceptional?”) At the time, she thought that her portrait of Vilar was flawed because his gesture was out of focus, but now she tells us, “J’aime les flous, surtout au premier plan” (“I like soft focus shots, especially in the foreground.”) For Varda, “l’émotion c’est quelque chose qu’on ne peut pas contrôler; je les pleure très sincèrement, comme ils étaient jeunes et beaux” (“emotion is something that can’t be controlled; I mourn them very sincerely, how young and beautiful they were”), which leads her to remember Jacques Demy, “tout rebondit sur Jacques, le plus chéri des morts” (“everything comes back to Jacques, the most cherished of the dead”), whom she met in 1958 at the Festival de Tours.
Jacquot de Nantes (1990) is the film that Varda made in homage to Jacques Demy, but Les plages d’Agnès provides multiple portraits of Jacques that help Varda transpose her loss into memory. Noirmoutier and the colours blue and gray, which Jacques Demy says inspire him, reappear throughout. Varda collects “des fiches de cinéma” (‘cinema fact cards’) that document her films, but also Jacques’, which she finds “dans les brocantes” (‘in secondhand stores’), pieces of film memorabilia for the general public and collectors, but also photos that hold personal memories and evoke images of the films and the person “avant d’être une fiche de cinéma en carton” (‘before being a cardboard fact’). In L.A., where Varda followed Jacques, and lost him for a time, she says, “Quand je réfléchis, tout s’envole; là je reviens sur les pas de mes anciens tournages, je ne sais pas si ça me fait plaisir” (“When I think, everything vanishes; there I retrace the steps of my former filming, I don’t know if that pleases me.”) Curiously, Documenteur (1981), remembered from a fiche de cinéma, is Varda’s favourite film she tells us; Documenteur is the film that relates the fictionalized account of her L.A. story. For Varda, “même si on déballe tout, on ne dévoile pas grande chose” (“even if you unload everything, you don’t reveal much.”) (9) It’s on a beach in L.A. that Varda, while interviewing her friends Patricia Knop and Val King, married for 45 years, is overcome with emotion, which she’ll later claim to be jealousy, and drops her camera away from the couple so that we see the grains of sand on the beach, and not what was originally intended to be in the frame.
The film Jacquot de Nantes (1991), Varda tells us, is “ses souvenirs d’enfance” (“his childhood memories”), Jacques’ memories as he wrote them down, and then asked Varda to help him with the project when he no longer had enough energy, debilitated from his bout with AIDS, “la réinvention des scènes de son enfance; un film en noir et blanc en hommage aux films des années 30 et 40” (“the reinvention of scenes from his childhood; a black and white film in tribute to films from the 1930s and 40s”). But for Varda, the film is the chance to embrace Jacques Demy, “au plus près de lui, filmer de très près, sa peau, ses cheveux comme un paysage, son oeil, ses taches” (“at his closest, to film up very close, his skin, his hair like a landscape, his eye, his marks”). Closer than the traditional close-up, Varda documents Demy’s body and the sensuality of her love for him in new ways with the new technology of newer electronic processes. (10)
The installation Les veuves de Noirmoutier (2005) includes Varda, recent widow, but she does not speak, “Je fais partie mais je reste silencieuse” (“I am one of them but I remain silent.”). Exhibited at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, the installation provides chairs for the viewers to sit down and watch, and headsets, for them to listen, “écouter l’une ou l’autre” (‘to listen to one or the other.’) Viewer participation, choosing where to sit, who to listen to, creates interest in and empathy for these women of a certain age, who tell us their stories, memories selected from their past, especially as they relate to the loss of a husband, who now is also portrayed for us through the words of his widow.
Les plages d’Agnès encompasses Varda’s memories of her own personal family, including members previously unknown (Uncle Yanko) or unacknowledged (Antoine B., Rosalie’s father, whose handwriting we encounter in his letters to Varda, before we physically see his person in her awarding-winning film Cleo de 5 à 7), as well as memories of the family that cinema has given her, artists, directors, actors by profession, but also neighbors and friends recruited to appear in her films (“Je connais mes classiques, et je connais mes amis”) (“I know my classics, and I know my friends.”) For Varda, “la famille, c’est un concept un peu compact; on ne cesse de les regrouper mentalement, de les imaginer comme un îlot de paix” (“the family is a concept that’s a bit compact; you never stop mentally gathering them together, imagining them like an island of peace.”) In a sense, Varda’s looking back in old age on her family has become her cinema. At the end of Les plages d’Agnès, she asks the question, “Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?” (“What is cinema?”) And answers, “La lumière qui arrive quelque part et qui est retenu par les images plus ou moins sombres ou colorées” (“Light that arrives somewhere and is reflected in images more or less dark or colourful.”) At the 2003 Venice Biennale, where Varda advertised her entry Patate Utopia, a video installation with three big screens and 700 kilos of potatoes, dressed as a potato, she sometimes had a mosaic stand in for her, which reproduced her first official portrait, in pieces of colour. The film Les plages d’Agnès can be considered a mosaic in many senses of the term (small, different coloured pieces used to create a pattern or picture, of possible cultural or spiritual significance); it’s a self-portrait of Agnes Varda, and it’s also a portrait of old age. Just as Varda has always done in her films, she gives us a personal story in a broader social context. She portrays her body and others’ up close, tenderly, amusingly in costume; she portrays her subjects in tightly-knit communities and families, unlike de Beauvoir whose accounts of the elderly in La Vieillesse depict them as discarded by society. (Varda pickets alongside the young who protest raising the retirement age for their grandparents’ generation, marching with the slogan “J’ai mal partout” [“I hurt all over”]; about being exhibited at the Fondation Cartier, she says, “le plaisir – la vieille cinéaste se transforme en jeune plasticienne” [“pleasure – the old lady filmmaker turns into a young artist”]); and memory is celebrated, even if not everything can be remembered, and is sometimes a fantasy as is the case for her mother as Varda films her late in life, “qui allait l’obliger de dire juste?; elle avait le droit de divaguer; j’ai trouvé ça charmant et même rigolo” (“who was going to make her tell it right?; she had the right to ramble; I found that charming and even funny.”) And for M. Cinéma, a little old man from Les Cent et une nuits de Simon Cinéma, the film that Varda made in 1994 for the centennial celebration of cinema, as well as for the film Les Créatures (1966), whose abandoned film stock became the walls of a playhouse installation at the Foundation Cartier Pour l’Art Contemporain, another example of Varda’s creative use of memory.
Framing herself and her reflections throughout Les plages d’Agnès, Varda is always stepping out of the frame in voice-off. Les plages d’Agnès does not really conclude, “c’est pas fini” (“it’s not over”), Varda tells us as she adds supplementary material, the celebration of her eightieth birthday, which seems a surprise to her, perhaps the “sale blague” (‘bad joke’) that she refers to at the beginning of her film when she mused, “s’imaginer très vieille est amusante” (“to imagine yourself very old is amusing”).
This article has been peer reviewed.
- Cited in Laurence Kardish’s essay on Agnès Varda for Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art, eds. Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010) 272.
- See YouTube
- In “La caméra et le miroir: portraits et autoportraits,” Agnès Varda: le cinéma et au-delà, eds. Antony Fiant, Roxane Hamery et Eric Thouvenel (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2009), Esteve Riambau’s comments on the first scene from Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988) point out that having a character be filmed looking into a mirror is also a way for the director to include herself within the frame: “C’est comme si moi je filme ton autoportrait. Tu ne seras pas toujours seule, dans le miroir. Il y aura la caméra, qui est un peu moi et tant pis si j’apparais parfois dans le miroir ou dans le champ” (“It’s as if I were filming your self-portrait. You will not always be alone, in the mirror. There will be the camera, which is a little bit me and too bad if I sometimes appear in the mirror or in the shot.”) 135.
- See Claudia Gorbman’s “La musique vardienne,” in Agnès Varda: le cinéma et au-delà (71-78) for a discussion of the wide variety of music found in Varda’s films.
- Agnès Varda: le cinéma et au-delà, 156
- Ibid., 157
- Patrick O’Brian, tr. “Introduction,” Old Age, Simone de Beauvoir (New York: Penguin Books, 1977, rpt. 1978) 8.
- See Sandy Flitterman-Lewis’ essay “Varda, glaneurse d’Histoire(s),” in Agnès Varda: le cinéma et au-delà, in which she says that Varda avoids any “schindlerisme” by a multi-faceted strategy that fragments and makes diverse impressions mirror each other (221).
- Varda films Jane Birkin, who says this as she empties the contents of her purse on the pavement in front of the Eiffel Tower.
- Laurence Kardish states in Agnès Varda that Les cent et une nuits de Simon Cinéma (A Hundred and One Nights, 1995) was the last work that Varda actually made using film (271).