Sur la plage avec Agnes

I’ve been spending these last several weeks catching up on films from the last fifteen years or so that I missed the first time around—things like 2046 and Letters from Iwo Jima and Silent Light and In Vanda’s Room.  Having screened three films by Tsai Ming-Liang, two by Jia Zhang-ke, and others by Hao Hsiao-Hsien, Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou, Nagisa Oshima, and Hirokazu Kore-eda, I’m certain that I have a better idea of contemporary Asian cinema than I did two months ago when I began this project.  (I’ve learned, for one thing, that I prefer Tsai’s films to those of just about any of his colleagues.)  I caught up with the work of Argentinian filmmaker Lucretia Martel, whose first two films, La Cienaga and The Holy Girl, have left me intrigued but a little baffled, but whose most recent feature The Headless Woman shows a surer hand.  And I looked at three of Manoel de Oliveira’s last features—I’m Going Home, Belle Toujours, and The Strange Case of Angelica, made when the filmmaker was between the ages of ninety-three and one hundred and three, and the last of which, a variation on the story of Sleeping Beauty, has a certain wry charm that perhaps only could have come from a centenarian.  (De Oliveira died in April at the age of one hundred and six.)

But one of the most enchanting discoveries of the last two months has been The Beaches of Agnes, a memoir in film by the great Agnes Varda, whose career has spanned the French New Wave to the video revolution.  I was aware of The Beaches of Agnes when it came out in 2009; it received unanimously positive reviews and turned up on a number of top ten lists at the end of the year, including Film Comment’s critics’ poll.  But I wasn’t moved to see it, mainly because at that time I was only vaguely familiar with Varda’s work.  Since then I’ve sought out more of her films, including La Pointe Courte, The Gleaners and I, the sublime and trenchant Le Bonheur (which blew me away when I first saw it in 2010), and The World of Jacques Demy, one of several lovingly mounted tributes to her late husband. 

So I was now in a better position to appreciate Beaches, in which Varda reflects whimsically on her life and art, her devotion to Demy, her children and friends.  It’s possible to argue that the latter half of Varda’s career is marred by solipsism—that her films have increasingly come to revolve around herself (and Demy), and that they continue to cover the same ground.  Watching Beaches not long after The World of Jacques Demy, one re-encounters some of the same stories and even some of the same footage.  (A self-professed “gleaner,” Varda is open about re-using and re-purposing bits and pieces of her own work.)  But to complain that Varda has become something of a doddering old woman who tells the same stories about herself over and over again is to resist her many charms.  Childlike, winsome, placid, and still profusely inventive at eighty-three, she may be one of the most playful of living filmmakers, and one of the wisest.

Picasso said that every child is an artist, and that the difficulty lies in remaining a child as one grows up.  Varda's enigmatic smile suggests that she has discovered the secret solution to this problem.

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