Agnes Varda on The Beaches of Agnes

The Beaches of Agnes is an inspiring journey through the life of an often overlooked director: Agnes Varda.

Feature by Gail Tolley | 12 Oct 2009

There’s a good chance that you haven’t heard of Agnes Varda. Despite a career spanning more than fifty years and collaborations with some of cinema’s greatest figures (Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Catherine Deneuve) her films have often been overlooked, especially in the UK. This month, however, there are two chances to discover this celebrated director’s work. A long overdue collection of Varda’s most famous films is released on DVD, which includes her first film La Pointe Courte (1954), the stylish nouvelle vague feature Cleo de 5 a 7 (1962), her award-winning film Vagabond (1985) and recent documentary The Gleaners and I (2002). There’s also the chance to see her latest documentary, The Beaches of Agnes, now on selected release at cinemas. Her most recent film is an inspiring autobiographical work that is crammed with memories from the director’s life as well as her personal insight into her films and those she has worked with including her relationship with director Jacques Demy.

Talking to the director on the eve of the release of The Beaches of Agnes I ask her what it felt like to look back at her career and life for the making of the film. “Well, even without wishing we look back because certain situations and people we meet make us go back” she comments. “I’m not a person who thinks and discusses a lot whether I did well or what I should do. I really love the present.” So how did she come to make the documentary, something that, by its very nature, requires a certain amount of reflection? “I was 78 when I thought ‘Oh my God, I will be 80 [soon], shall I do something as a filmmaker?’ and I decided I should do something and it became the film”. And from this simple decision comes a delightfully idiosyncratic documentary that avoids being nostalgic or inward-looking. This comes about in part from Varda interweaving her own stories with the stories of people she meets along the way. As she describes, “The film is not so much about questioning my life and making it cinematic, as about taking advantage of what happens. Like when I went to my childhood house and I bump into these people who collect miniature trains and then I become a documentarist; I ask them questions and they tell me how much it costs and what they do. It makes my day, but then ok, I’m not finding out about my childhood but for the audience it’s a better film to have a good time with these people than if I said ‘my bed was here…’” It also makes watching the film an incredibly uplifting experience which celebrates life rather than mourning its passing, a result of what Varda calls “being on the side of life”.

Yet the film isn’t without its moments of great poignancy, no more so than when Varda recalls her relationship with director Jacques Demy. The couple were married in 1962 and were both involved in the emerging New Wave scene in France in the early sixties before moving to Los Angeles where Demy pursued his filmmaking career in Hollywood. The Beaches of Agnes reveals that Demy later contracted HIV and he died in 1990 at the age of 59. During the last few months of his life Varda worked on a documentary entitled Jacquot de Nantes, a heartfelt account of Demy’s childhood. The memory of Demy lingers throughout The Beaches of Agnes, as Varda says “I wanted the feeling of Jacques Demy to be strong in the film even though we don’t see him a lot”. At one point she evokes this memory along with the recurring motif of the beach: “In the film there is an American couple who met on the beach and married on the beach and they love each other for 45 years and they are so much in love and in peace and I thought ‘Oh my God I miss that’ because Jacques Demy died [just] when we were planning to age together.”

The kaleidoscopic nature of The Beaches of Agnes allows for an eclectic and colourful portrait of Varda to emerge which feels more representative of the vibrant life of the artist than a conventional autobiographical film could attempt to capture. There is also the sense that the film may be a swan song by Varda to her filmmaking career. In recent years the director has increasingly turned to other mediums for creative expression, in particular visual art installations, which is where she plans to concentrate her efforts in the future. In many ways it seems perverse that it is at this point that some audiences will first discover Varda. Yet at the same time The Beaches of Agnes is an enticing snapshot of the director’s life that will without doubt encourage viewers to go and explore her work further. The Beaches of Agnes is a celebratory work for a celebrated filmmaker.

The Beaches of Agnes is out now.