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Beaches of Agnes directed by Agnés Varda (review)
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Winner of the 2009 Cesare Award for “Best Documentary,” Agnès Varda’s Beaches of Agnes presents a pleasing and edifying glimpse of not only the artist’s life and work, but also of the remarkable artistic community of which she was a part in the years following the Second World War. With the death of Chris Marker in July 2012, only Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais remain as the standard bearers for the Left Bank (Rive Gauche) cinema movement that emerged in post-WW II France. While they differed in artistic background and inspiration, the Left Bank filmmakers are often associated with the more popular French New Wave of the same era, because they occasionally collaborated, were friends with one another, and had similar creative principles. Varda and the Left Bank directors shared with the French New Wave a drive to edxperiment with and innovate film form, principally through their manipulation of conventions of narrative structure and cinematic technique. By working outside the studio system, they also figured out how to make these films with limited financial and technological means. This combination of experimentation and resourcefulness would influence the evolution of cinema throughout the second half of the century.

Varda’s earlier films—most notably, La Pointe Courte (1955) and Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962)– established her prominence as a major filmmaker, and exemplify the balance between innovative artistry and socio-political insight characteristic of her work. They also straddle the line between reality and artifice, each symbiotically essential to the other. In these films, as in the ones that followed, Varda uses both professional and non-professional actors, shoots on location and creates her own sets, and makes feature films in the cinema verité style of a documentary. The dynamic between reality and artifice also extends to the viewer’s experience of her films. Cléo de 5 à 7, for instance, confuses diegetic and extra-diegetic time as the viewer follows a woman awaiting the results of a biopsy between the hours of 5 and 6:30. As a result, the spectators shares Cléo’s anticipation and dread, and, in the process, gains insight into the more mundane challenges of her existence. In this and other Varda films, art is directed to realize the nuances and potentiality, the depth and variability, of lived experience.

Such is the case with Beaches of Agnès with respect to Varda’s life experiences. On the surface, Beaches is narrated like any other autobiography. It offers a chronology of her life from infancy to dotage, with anecdotes and illustrations of the key transformative moments that effectively made her who she is. She brings us to her childhood home in Brussels, recounts her fears and aspirations during wartime and the Nazi occupation, as well as her revelations as a student and as a lover, her coming of age as an artist among artists, the birth of her first child and of her second with her husband and love of her life, Jacques Demy, and the enduring sadness over his death that she carries with her to her 80th birthday, the celebration of which concludes the film.

The way in which the story of her life is told, however, deviates from convention, and reflects the distinct artistic signature of its subject. From the beginning it is quite clear that the story she is telling is not just of her life, but also of the challenge of imagining the proper forms for conveying it to the viewer. The title “beaches,” which signify both meaningful places she has lived by in her life and psychological terrains, represents this challenge: “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes. If we opened me up, we’d find beaches.” Unlike landscapes, which conjure solid, static images that we might objectively appreciate, the sands of a beach take shape under the feet that walk it, and from the hands that shape it; they are both real and evanescent, depending on the reach of a tide. So, too, are Varda’s memories of her life, which are animated as much by the dynamics of artistic creation as they are by her photographs and films.

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