The things that you lose in the course of a long life, and the things you might somehow hold on to, are the stuff of Agnès Varda’s latest essay film–“stuff” being a clunky word to apply where this innately elegant artist is concerned but also inescapable, since she likens her method in this film to dumping the contents of a purse.
Out tumble lint, valuables, makeup, mementos, business receipts, scraps of notepaper and pieces of identification, official and otherwise. Some of this accumulation, such as the family snapshots, might belong to any grandmother, as I think Varda would admit. Having dedicated a significant part of her work to making common cause with other women, she readily counts herself among their company. That said, though, she knows her career within this collectivity has been singular, and so are most of the odds and ends she pours out before the viewer. Founding member and sole woman of the French New Wave, witness to radical social movements and sometimes their abettor, entrepreneur, traveler, friend to a long list of artistic geniuses, she in effect brings out of her purse more than fifty years’ worth of assorted and idiosyncratic film clips, portrait photographs and snatches of music, not to mention some recently gathered views of places she’s known.
“A puzzle,” she calls her life’s materials as she sorts and arranges them, “with a hole in the center.” Or, to switch to the metaphor of her new film’s title, the assemblage she makes looks like a meeting place of the elements, continually forming and slipping away: The Beaches of Agnès.
You see her, in a prologue set in Belgium, tromping barefoot on one of the North Sea beaches she enjoyed as a child. “If you opened people up, you’d find landscapes,” Varda explains. “If you opened me up, you’d find beaches.” Meanwhile, her assistants are setting up a multitude of mirrors on the sand, as if to prepare the filmmaker for her self-portrait. “Show me in an old spotted mirror,” she advises, looking into one that almost completely obscures her face, “or with my scarf blowing like this,” as she studies the effect of having her head completely covered. For the most part, Varda makes the reflections show only her young helpers and the waves, sky and dune grass. Things drift away and things abide, but the self who mourns and retains is elusive–perhaps willfully so. Varda scratches into the sand her original given name–Arlette–and watches the letters wash away. She speaks of the lone recording of classical music she heard as a child, and fragments of the piece rise on the soundtrack over the view of the North Sea: Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.
Playful, quizzical, at times deliberately clownish, Varda claims the status of enigma in The Beaches of Agnès, saying in this prologue that she is only pretending to be eager to tell about herself, much as she’s “playing at being an old lady” (this, at 79). “It’s other people who move me,” she declares. Considering the many characters who then figure in the film, and the love she lavishes on them all–from the baker down the street from her house to her late husband, Jacques Demy–I can believe her.