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Life's a Beach: Agnes Varda Tells Her Cinematic Tale

By Sara Scheiron

Editor's Note: The Beaches of Agnes airs June 29 on PBS' POV series. This article ran in the July 2009 Documentary Online in conjunction with the film's theatrical release through The Cinema Guild.

Agnès Varda earned the moniker "The Grand Dame of the Nouvelle Vague," in part because she was the only female in the highly influential French New Wave. Her marriage to fellow Left Bank filmmaker Jacques Demy and their inevitable distinction as French cinema's power couple certainly contributed to the reputation. But Varda's import to film is unrelated to either her gender or the import of her colleagues.

Varda's work has spanned decades and genres and is a favorite of film classes. Like most of the New Wave filmmakers, her films challenge formal assumptions. Her particular interest is the assumption of truth that tints the documentary aesthetic.

The Beaches of Agnès is her most recent film, and a cinematic self-portrait. She carries us from beach to beach, introducing us to the people who made her, both literally (her family) and metaphorically (her colleagues and the art that inspired her). Poetic logic and daydreams are all over the film, as they are in every one of her films; it's just that this film is about her. So here, as the protagonist/filmmaker, she is, as she's said before, "the other than me" and via a travelogue through beaches, clips from her films, photographs she took and whimsical dialogues with those people who have influenced her, we can piece together the puzzle of her life and career.

Documentary: Your documentaries tend to involve you as a character and tend towards a travelogue format. What do these two tendencies have in common?

Agnès Varda: It's not a tendency. It's a choice. It's an auto-portrait--self-portrait, but mostly, I would say, it's "the other than me." It's not really me...Me or me. Just to give an example, the first few seconds of the film are on the Belgian beach. I use mirrors because the mirror is the tool of the self-portrait. You don't have to be so self-conscious to make a portrait of yourself; it's an artistic act. If I were very coquette, I would have done it earlier and would not have waited until I was 80 years old and almost broken to make it. So, the travelogue is more [about] going through my life. I like to take your hand and take you with me, meeting again or visiting some pieces of my life. Like bubbles, what came out came out. I missed parts and certainly forgot very important meetings and stories. I made it very simple: I divided my life in beaches. It was obvious. I'd been in Belgium near beaches, in the South of France during the war, in beaches in Los Angeles and in that island at Normandy. Now for Paris there is no beach, so I had to make it. It became a gag to throw sand in the sidewalk in the middle of the road. My production team was nice enough to wear swimming suits to type and make phone calls. You need the complicity of people around you to do that.


From Agnes Varda's The Beaches of Agnes. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild


D: It seems to me that you earn their complicity with your respect. The people in your films are always subjects. You, however, are often an "other."

AV: Well, a little. With Beaches, you can say it's about me, but it's about me and the others and the others and me. I think it was important to show the people who made me-- not only my mother and father who construct my spirit and my mind, but people I met and paintings I loved. I made a puzzle with my friends.

D: You allow people to critique your films while you're in editing--

AV: Yes! Not neighbors--different people, including professionals. During editing I take advice because I want to see how much I share, how much is understandable and pleasant. But I'm not obliged to follow [the advice]. "Okay, that's their point, that's mine." It gives you a key of how this film can be accepted or loved or what. But then, after the editing, I don't [touch it]. This is it and the critics can say what they want. People write me a lot of letters.

D: Getting input from your friends and colleagues must be challenging, and finishing this film, this movie about your life, must have felt pretty heavy.

AV: I didn't think it was more important than another film; it just came on time in my life. Maybe it was my last film, maybe not.

D: The film dances between family photos and reenactments. You say that you don't know what to make of the reenactments. Playing with these reenactments and photographs and old footage foregrounds the subject of representation, yes?

AV: Representation is the main subject. My life is how it is, but how to represent it, how to make it a film, how to find cinematic set-ups.

I'll give you an example: I did some shots in 16mm for my first film, La pointe courte--tests. Then I made the film in 35 and, by the way, I imitated my test. But these tests had been made with a couple, my friends, and the man died of cancer, so I dedicated the film to him. He had a wife with two kids, three and five [years old].

Ages pass, and when I find the 16mm film, I say, "Oh, I should put this in the film [Beaches] as my test." [Then] I realized that the family had not seen the test. So, at that point I can just be normal and say, "Come in my editing room and see your father," but I decided to make a real cinematic set-up. I took the carriage that was in the final film, La pointe-courte, and organized a screening on it and projected it on it and I had the kids push that carriage and screened the film in 16mm. Their father, whom they had never seen in motion, is pushing that carriage in the 16mm footage. And it's like a second burial. It's like a very nice way of pushing the memory of something they didn't have, because they had not seen him like this. You see, it's sophisticated in a way to try to find that cinematic thing, but it is touching, much more than if I just say, "Look at your father here."

I felt it very true, very good, you know? It's a way of presenting what I felt and what I wanted to show them instead of just showing it. So, it's a cinematic act. And in many places in the film I wanted to make it pleasant. Not because I want to please everybody, but because I think they deserve to get something for their money when they pay for the theater. So, I could tell very true things and moving [things] sometimes, but also pass from one thing to another, like we all do, zap all the time.

D: That's such an artful way to live. How intertwined are life and art in your view?

AV: My whole life as a filmmaker was [dedicated] to finding representations. I changed my way of filming according to the subject, according to the evolution of equipment, of material, of stock. And, you know, when I made The Gleaners and I and had to approach people who were very poor, I was so glad that I had these little cameras and not a big crew. Now I use this very small HD camera so I can do things that can be integrated into films. The technique is very important because it opens you to new worlds of filming and representation. You have to find [a different means of] representation for every film, every scene, every opinion you want to express. You can't just say, "I will write a line," and that will just illustrate it. Representation is the main string of what we do.

I was in Sete, in the South of France, and I didn't like the idea of living outdoors in the canals, so we had to go to Paris. But in my mind, I was not leaving Sete--I was still there. So I decided to write that scene where I sail that little boat from Sete down the River Seine near the Tour Eiffel. La Tour Eiffel means Paris. But this is a choice of representation, because this is not true. I didn't come in the boat; you cannot even sail on the River Seine. This was a dreamy approach to what I felt. In the film I represent my life and reality, but I [also] represent daydreams, impressions, desires, showing something that is not part of my exact life, shot after shot.


From Agnes Varda's The Beaches of Agnes. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild


D: The real world includes the imaginary world.

AV: We have to love that. Like the way I love the surrealists; I make some images and put myself in the belly of a whale to create the feeling that I was really inside that.

D: It was a darling office in the belly of that whale. Very well decorated.

AV: The belly of the whale was made from paper, so we had to decide if we would represent the whale with glossy black paper--this is not redoing a real whale. Again, there is a décalage: It is not exactly on the side of the representation, it's not reality all the time; it's playing with reality.

D: So art is playing with reality?

AV: Sure. Playing with truth, too. Even if you are true, you play with it. You know, the way you decide to say one thing, not another thing? You decide what not to say and then you say it. The film is also about losing memory. In the film I appear all the time with these old ladies--which also says that I am losing my own memory. I am glad I made the film. This saves me from forgetting everything. I think that is my freedom. I can decide if the film can be true or vaguely away from the truth. Imagination has the power to show this and that. At the same time, I will film my family that I see as a dreamy concept. I think it is like a surrounding group protecting me.


From Agnes Varda's The Beaches of Agnes. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild


D: Protecting you from what?

AV: I don't know. I love my film; it protects me. I feel loved by my audience, even though I don't know their names, I feel their protection is there.

The Beaches of Agnes, currently screening in New York and Los Angeles, will roll out to theaters across the country through October. For more information, click here.

Sara Scheiron is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.