Not knowing if you know, it is all there: The Beaches of Agnès (2008)

9 December 2015

So I finally arrive for the last leg of my journey with Varda in this self portrait. I will rest here for the time being with the beautiful introspection of it; not because she has stopped working, she hasn’t, but this permits an appreciation of everything she strives to live for. For newcomers it will be a good place to start knowing her and they can deepen each chapter by going back to her earlier travels.

Introspection isn’t the right word actually. Varda doesn’t keep things internalized, I don’t get the sense of anything hidden or dimly seen. For her it is all readily available, it is all externalized and offered up to us like we are guests in her house on an afternoon and she just waves us in smiling. I get the sense of a woman who has traveled far and seen amazing things and can’t wait to share it all with a giddy, sometimes shy, excitement.

This isn’t the first time she is reflecting on her life of course, many of her works are self portraits on the side or inspired by real life. We learn for example that Daguerrotypes she filmed around her neighborhood because she was pregnant at the time and had to stay at home.

But how does she present herself here, in this stage of her life? What images of her? Varda as grandmotherly raconteur, as young girl overcoming her shyness with men, as spirited woman who protested injustice, as wife and soulmate and explorer.

As for stories, she has been all over and has plenty to share. Traveled to China and Cuba in her twenties and came back with images of revolution. Knew Godard and speaks about her filmmaking start via Resnais. She was in Oakland in ’68 to film the Panthers. Knew Jim Morrison and was with him in his last days. Lived around Warhol’s circle in LA. Protested feminism with Delphine Seyrig in the streets. Chris Marker is in the film, speaking from behind an image. These and more.

But saying that she shares it all out in the open isn’t the whole truth either; truth is knowing how to sculpt it after all. You might appreciate how eloquently she speaks about discovering sex in Corsica one summer by not speaking about it. How gracefully she speaks about her marriage, sketching merely the air around unhappiness (as all marriages know); she was the woman in Documenteur, we’re told. Varda is one of those beautiful souls who know how to move towards things, how to move back, how to see and from what distance.

The most lasting impression for me here is of a woman who glides through lives she recalls and summons to her in the beach of memory, and this is Varda herself in the actual film moving through images, photos of childhood, mirrors, a visit to her childhood home, clips from old films, enactments, narrations about these. But moves with an unfettered soul. She opens the film saying, “I’m playing the role of a little old lady, telling her life story”. How to be like Varda? Explore the role of someone who happens to be the person you are growing into, be open to the encounter; no more is necessary.

For near the end she reserves a small gem that carries the wisdom of entire lives, there’s more to this one line than I’ve seen in the entire careers of others. Prior to it, we have seen a woman who has known heartbreak enough, now pacing alone in the house of images (the place with strips of film hanging from walls). Her family, kids and grandkids, are dancing nearby. Watching them she muses that they are her happiness, she doesn’t know if she knows them or understands them, she just goes towards them.

Something to meditate upon.



writer on structured narrative and the changing world

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