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  • The Feminist Beachscape:Catherine Breillat, Diane Kurys and Agnès Varda
  • Fiona Handyside

"Space is very much on the agenda these days."1

Following the 'spatial turn' in the humanities, a variety of theorists (John Berger, Andrew Sayer, Fredric Jameson, Michel Foucault, John Urry, and Fernand Braudel) have asserted the significance of the spatial in contemporary (post-modern) times. The spatial is also called upon in a variety of metaphorical ways in discussions of human identity in which the terminology of space, location, positionality, and place figure prominently. As an art that both mechanically reproduces and artistically represents the spatial, the cinema has become a privileged site in which to think through the varied meanings of space in these debates. The importance of cinema is especially telling in the French context, given the vital role French cinema has played as a symbol of France's desire to resist homogenization and globalization (in defending film as a 'cultural exception'), and the treatment given to film and spatiality by French theorists, notably in the work of Gilles Deleuze and André Gardies.2 As James F. Austin states, "given its prestige, financial importance, and enormous cultural resonance in France, the cinema is well positioned to engage in a spatial politics, to be an art of space producing its own spaces and potentially redefining the spaces of France and French subjects."3 In this article, I will be considering the ways in which three films by French female directors—La Baule Les Pins (Kurys, 1989), À ma sœur (Breillat, 2001), and Les Plages d'Agnès (Varda, 2008)—engage with the politics of the spatial through their intense investigations of the beach as the site for the expression of a specifically female subjectivity. These films construct the beach as a site of an alternative modernity, escaping the binding gendered opposites of the cityscape but still engaging with 'modern' sensibilities in such a way that a feminist reading of the beachscape becomes possible.

The overwhelmingly dominant paradigm for thinking through the complex relations between cinema and the spatial has involved analysing relations between cinema and the city, in which the visceral experiences of city life are held to echo the sensations of the film spectator and the film spectator experiences the representation of the city on screen, in a kind of osmosis. Above all, both the cinema and the city are taken to offer a new kind of optics. Giuliana Bruno, for example, argues that the new geography of modernity, the [End Page 83] cityscape with its arcades, bridges, railways, electric underground, powered flights, skyscrapers, department stores, and exhibition halls, produces a new spatio-visuality which emphasises transit. She concludes that

mobility—a form of cinematics—was the driving force of these new architectures. By changing the relationship between spatio-temporal perception and bodily motion, the architectures of transit prepared the ground for the invention of the moving image, the very epitome of modernity.4

The privileged relation accorded to the various places of the cityscape in thinking about cinema and space is testified to by the sheer volume of books considering the relations between the cinema and the city.5 The cityscape/cinema nexus reflects the feeling that both emerged as a response to the industrialising and modernising impulses of the late nineteenth century: both express a new, modern relation to space based on movement and sight. The city's dominance within considerations of cinema as a spatial art can however be questioned by examining how other sites can equally express the intense visual and spatial mobility offered by the city. Here, what Alain Corbin has called "the invention of the beach" as a modern rather than an Arcadian space, calls our attention to another site expressive of the changed social and spatial relations of modernity.6

The modern beach

At one point in his writings on space, Foucault refers, tantalisingly and briefly, to the beach. It is worth citing the passage at length:

L'œuvre—immense—de Bachelard, les descriptions des phénoménologues nous ont appris que nous ne vivons pas dans un espace homogène et vide, mais, au contraire, dans un espace qui est tout chargé de qualités, un...