Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 17, 2009 2:08 pm 
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Varda stages and composes an imaginative poetic autobiography

Agnès Varda today is an impressive woman, whose present self is woven throughout this poetic film autobiography. At eighty (a surprise birthday celebration decorates the end credits) she is spry of body and vigorous of mind, inventive and alive, looking forward as well as back in this poetic film autobiography. She blends living tableaux, installations, old footage, voice-over, interviews. She is ever present, talking, inventing, directing, symbolically (and actually, on camera) walking backward. The result is far too beautiful to call "documentary portrait."

Remembering the film, one thinks of Agnès at various ages, always with the same shiny dark cloche of hair (allowed to grow white in some shots) and the same solid, mobile form. One also remembers circus acrobats performing on a beach; a carnivalesque film office set up in the sand. One thinks of Agnès with Demy, and his sweet, sad face; her children and grandchildren, dressed in white and cavorting around her for the camera contre jour, into the sun, on the sand with the sea behind them, glorious and handsome and Mediterranean. This is a celebration of cinema and of life.

She does not forget to talk about the Nazis and the extermination camps, or her schoolgirl songs celebrating the collaborationist government of Pétain and Vichy. Or her sadness about all the great people she photographed and knew who are gone. Or her anger about the exploitation of women.

But Beaches of Agnès is also not without deliberate lacunae. How did the love of her life, her husband, her co-director on his famous Umbrellas of Cherbourg, happen to die of AIDS? Everybody is talking to her, so they tell her what she wants to hear. There's nothing wrong with that, because we want to hear it too. Yet with the poetry and beauty one's left in a bit of a daze, because film fiction and film fact and reenactment and chronology are interwoven so cunningly and rapidly you need a time outline and a stop button, which are not provided. The fluidity of it is quite enchanting. But it doesn't exactly leave you with a precise knowledge of this wonderful, long life that's probably not near its creative end. (After all, we already live in an age of 80-something and 90-something filmmakers. And here is a woman, and women live longer than men.)

To hold together such a rich life, Agnès Varda needed a theme, and she feels in everyone there is a landscape, but in her there are beaches; her life has often revolved around them. The eternal theme of woman and water, weave, wave, wife. And if it was difficult to provide unity, that only reflects the richness of the life.

Her father was Greek, her mother French; her first name was Arlette; she legally changed it to Agnès at 18. She was born in Belgium, and in 1940 they fled to Sète on the south coast of France (where Kechiche's Secret of the Grain unfolds) and she lived her adolescence. After studying photography in Paris and working for the Theatre National Populaire, she came knew everybody, including Godard, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Demy of course; Jean Vilar of the national theater; Philippe Noiret, whom she used in her first film, Pointe courte. In Hollywood she befriended Jim Morrison of the Doors, and was the first to use Harrison Ford in a movie at a time when he was told he had no future in pictures.

She covered the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, fought for abortion and other women's issues, was grouped with Marker and Resnais as part of the Nouvelle Vague, lived in and loved LA and was filming the Black Panthers when Paris was in turmoil in June of '68. (In '67, the Summer of Love, she made Uncle Yanco, about her bohemian painter uncle who lived on a houseboat in Sausalito.) She made such classic films as (her first important work) Cleo from 5 to 7, the Bresson-like Vagabond/Sans toit ni loi; The Gleaners; One Sings, the Other Doesn't. Vagabond won the Golden Lion in Venice and made Sandrine Bonaire a star. Varda made films about LA murals (Murs murs) and hippies (Lions Love, with Warhol's Viva), and Jane Birkin, and completed three about Jacque Demy after his death. As she points out, light small digital cameras were important for in the making of The Gleaners (perhaps also for Vagabond?).

In 2006, at 78, she was invited to do a video and stills installation, "L'Ile et elle" (the island and her: she likes such punning titles), about the island of Noirmoutier--a step forward in a new career that's reflected in the various tableaux vivantes and installations of this film that evoke her past poetically, express her vision, and simply enchant and avoid forever the boredom of the conventional filmed autobiography. She begins with rich use of mirrors on the beach, moving among them and directing and talking to her typically attractive young film crew. In one remarkable sequence, she has the men who worked in one of her early films reassembled, pushing a large cart through the street at night, with a projector mounted on it showing the film.

She can be a bit maudlin, as she is throwing down roses in a huge installation of her old much enlarged black and white portraits of Gérard Philipe, Philippe Noiret, and other departed stars of her firmament and French cinema's. And when talking about Jacques Demy, she weeps. But mostly she is joyous, and smiles. The fact the cause of Demy's death, AIDS, was kept secret then and for years after she attributes to the stigma attached to the disease in the Eighties.

Varda's eliding of distinctions between real and imaginary, documentary and fiction, present and past can be very confusing: distinctions don't mean enough to her. But though things could be more organized and expository, her confusions and conflations are still beautiful and fascinating to watch.

At the Césars, February 28, 2009, [i]Les plages d'Agnès received the Best Documentary award for 2008. It had received rave notices from the French critics. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, March 2009.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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