As she sits inside a "shack" made of celluloid strips, shimmering, Agnès Varda asks a question that is utterly unanswerable: "What is cinema?"
There are all these people willing to enter a reverie, something imaginary. They don't know what it is and they don't even ask. I want them moving all the time.
-- Agnès Varda
"My memories swarm around me like confused flies," says Agnès Varda. Reflecting on her journey to Hollywood in 1980, she sorts through memories -- of her Jacques Demy, of California sand and sun, of filming the documentary Mur Murs, about L.A.'s outdoor wall murals. Along with the art, she remembers as well a "swarm" of other vintage U.S. moments, indicated here by stock footage of Black Panthers, hippies, and Southern California seashores, as well as TV commercials. "Thinking about it," she says, "Time gets all mixed up."
This particular set of memories forms but a brief interlude in The Beaches of Agnès (Les plages d'Agnès). Still, it's a telling "swarm," indicating the methods by which she sorts through her life thus far -- her persistent embrace of new experience and above all, her love of cinema. Motivated by her 80th birthday, this latest of the filmmaker/photographer's self-reflections is by turns playful and earnest, bright and somber. Probing her past, ruminating on its possible meanings and effects, the documentary is at all times lovely and allusive, a gift of images, moving in multiple ways.
"I'm playing the role of a little old lady," Varda announces as the film begins, "pleasantly plump and talkative, telling her life story. And yet it's others I'm interested in, others I'd like to film, others who intrigue me, who motivate me, make me question, disconcert me, fascinate me." As her previous films indicate, her interest in "others" has hardly flagged over time. And so, even as she means to talk about herself, she imagines, "If we opened me up, we’d find beaches."
And indeed, the film is full of beaches -- signs of her childhood in Brussels and youth in the Mediterranean port Sète (where her family lived during World War II), as well as her evolving sense of adventure and independence. "Everyone says childhood is a foundation, provides a structure," she muses, over shots of childhood photos arranged in the sand, "But I don’t know." The wind and the water make their own effects on these black and white moments, arrested and arresting, as does the film's framing of them, at once past and preserved, reflected in mirrors that are likewise arranged to find support in sea breezes ("The north wind will hold it up," she instructs a crew member). She goes on to assemble children on the beach as well, with colorful swimsuits and hair clips and plastic pails: as they almost reenact her photos, she smiles, "For me, it's cinema, it’s a game, an installation with flowers and shells."
The game is endlessly fascinating, as what was and what can be come together on screen. Remembering that her mother liked to listen to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, Varda adds, "I liked the title." Just so, each of the memories she conjures leads to another, sometimes sequential and sometimes not, the movement back and forth in time showing that they are not linear but cumulative and perpetual (swarming). The filmmaker looks into the lens and then shoots herself with another camera that's looking at the lens, the layers of looks reminding you that the film exists within a set of films, and they in turn emerge from a history of cinema -- from Varda's own experiments as a child and budding surrealist (La Pointe-Courte) to her work during La Nouvelle Vague. She suggests that her breakthrough film, Cléo 5 to 7 (1962), shows "subjective time," and as you are reminded of it, you see that this time is quite like that unfolding before you now -- moment by moment, images simultaneously mirroring and expanding.
The Beaches of Agnès recalls Varda's work, of course, her relationships with actors like Jane Birkin (appearing here as a casino dealer, Joan of Arc, and Stan Laurel) and Catherine Denueve, and her films as manifestations of her politics. "I tried to be a joyful feminist," she notes, "But I was very angry." On beat, the documentary cuts to Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) (1985), kicking at doors and looking ruefully over her shoulder. "Mona is rebellious, Mona wants to be free," Varda says of this tragic and stirring character, but she is lost too, too furious and too artless to survive. Of course, and thankfully, Varda makes sense of her (and Mona's) outrage in and with art.
She also looks back on her losses. Here too she turns to cinema to keep hold, to preserve and let go at once. She made a film for Demy as he was dying (he succumbed to complications of AIDS in 1990), recovering his childhood in Jacquot de Nantes so that he could visit the set and say, "It's just right, I am here." She also documented his experience at the time, in images that are compassionately close, affectionate, and respectful, but also silent. In 1989, she remembers, AIDS was "considered a shameful disease," and so he chose to remain silent. "As a filmmaker," she explains, "My only option was to film him, in extreme close-up, his skin, his eye, his hair. Like a landscape, his hands, his spots. I needed to do this take these images of him, of his very matter. Jacques dying but Jacques still alive."
Part homage, part working through, these shots of Demy appear in Beaches as bits of Varda's own experience, less swarming than solemn and contemplative. And yet, they are also part of her life as cinema. Her dedication to Demy, their children and grandchildren, their loving, creative lives together, is strangely palpable in her version of cinema -- a mix of animations, collages, and always, mirrors. She remains engaged with the world, concerned with its many afflictions, its wars and floods, even as "I sit in safety and imagine those situations. I sit motionless."
As she sits inside a "shack" made of celluloid strips, shimmering, Varda asks a question that is utterly unanswerable: "What is cinema?" On one level, she suggests, it is "Light coming from somewhere, captured by images more or less dark or colorful." It is also, she thinks, a kind of place, comprised of memories by definition -- film is always past as soon as it is made. "In here," she says of her philosophical, emotional, and here, literalized haven, "It feels like I live in cinema. I think I've always lived in it."