Tuesday 31 July 2018

From the archive: "The Beaches of Agnès"

Elsewhere this week, the autoportrait The Beaches of Agnès finds veteran director Agnès Varda - most prominent (you could say sole) female representative of the French New Wave - hanging around on a beach along with several mirrors, trapeze artists, and a naked bloke, and wondering just why it is she's always felt the call of the ocean, and why beaches have played such a substantial part in her filmography. What follows is a retrospective of Varda's life and her career working across several disciplines: not solely as a director in the cinema, but as an installation artist and photographer, as an artist in her own right, and as the wife and muse of fellow New Waver Jacques Demy, whose Les Demoiselles de Rochefort was successfully revived over the summer. Photos and trinkets are tossed into the air, snippets of celluloid made subject to the sea breeze, and what follows plays like a more emollient digest of Godard's epic assemblage Histoire(s) du cinéma (or, closer to home, Terence Davies' Of Time and the City): a collage of memories and movies and memories of movies, coupled up by a filmmaker for whom life and art have long been inseparable. 

Varda's worldview is naturally more playful than her peers: a sprightly septuagenarian with a Widdecombian pageboy haircut, she retraces her steps - in places, stepping or rowing backwards - to the scenes of her past works. Some of this is very funny: we see La Varda dressed as a potato to promote one of her exhibitions, and struggling to park a cardboard car, and in conversation with Chris Marker disguised as a cartoon cat with a Stephen Hawking voice. Some of it is rather moving: recalling her debut film, 1956's La Pointe Courte, Varda encourages one featured performer's sons to push a cart on which a projector unspools unseen footage of their now-departed father. What's clear is that Varda shares Godard's sharp eye for matching images: the film knits together canvasses and cinema, prints she retouched as a student with a damp patch on her ceiling, and - most cherishably - scenes from her own films with similar scenes from Demy's, illustrating just what a two-way street their relationship was. If Varda's histories are less standalone than Davies's, they can't fail to exert a certain charm if you know anything of this career: the clips sourced from the director's back catalogue - with their glimpses of a youthful Philippe Noiret and Gérard Depardieu - only make one wish again that her work was more widely accessible on this side of La Manche.  

(Sunday Telegraph, 4 October 2009) 

The Beaches of Agnès returns to selected cinemas this Friday as part of Curzon's Gleaning Truths season: more details here, and more reviews through the week.

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