By Beth Stone
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The Beaches of Agnes

This article is over 12 years, 4 months old
Director Agnès Varda, Release date: 22 February
Issue 344

Agnès Varda heads backwards through the sands, weaving together memories of her life, clips of her own films, and images of her friends and neighbours (some celebrities, many not).

She is retracing her steps and, in her own words, “imagining oneself as a child is like running backwards”. Now 80 years old, having successfully experimented with photography, cinematography and documentary, Varda combines them all in a film about her own life. But with Varda it is never that simple.

If the film can be said to have a theme, it’s memory – and the loss of it. Varda says more than once, “Memories hover around me like confused flies.” Typically, she doesn’t necessarily regard the loss of memory as an affliction – an old friend who has difficulty recognising her family spends her time reciting beautiful poetry. Varda views that as a form of liberation.

Varda began making films with no formal training. A photographer first, she wanted to use cinema “as a language”, not just follow the path of theatre by reproducing the same works on a cinema screen. In typical playful style, she turns the tables: she has made a film where the beach becomes the stage. At the end of one episode fishermen’s nets are parted and closed as if they are theatre curtains. Cinema has encompassed theatre, not reflected it.

We see Varda as a child, in her early days as a photographer, as a filmmaker of the French New Wave, with her partner, Jacques Demy, and with her family and friends. Her energy was not only reserved for filmmaking.

She was not in France for the events of 1968, but in the US she filmed the Black Panthers and marched against the war in Vietnam. She describes her lust for freedom but acknowledges the need for a “collective response” to issues. Regarding women’s liberation and particularly the struggle for abortion rights, which she campaigned for, she says, “I tried to be a joyful feminist, but I was very angry.”

This genre of film is risky – it can easily degenerate into self-indulgence and nostalgia. Not so here. Varda pronounces her visit to her childhood home “a flop” – she is not a sentimentalist. The film is full of energy and a passion for the influence of art and literature (she discovered Picasso “with enthusiasm”, and there are many beautiful stills of paintings, including his, in the film), for life and for her friends and family.

Varda brings a mercurial touch to film. This DVD is released at the end of this month. If you love cinema, buy it.

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