Tag Archives: Agnès Varda

The Beaches of Agnes: A Video Essay by Meg Russell

 

The Beaches of Agnes – Cinécriture; memory and film – A Video Essay by Meg Russell

 

My video essay is concerned with auteur Agnes Varda and her documentary practices, constructed around the research question ‘How does Agnes Varda utilise Cinécriture to navigate the themes of memory and film in The Beaches of Agnes?’ I am interested in the aesthetic style of Varda’s filmography, specifically her documentary, and the ways that she injects charm and intimacy into her filmic portrait. The term coined by Varda herself can be defined as followed:

 

Cinécriture; (cinema-writing), meaning every aspect in her movies is included with meaning or message, something commonly used today in film.

 

Though commonly found in the film, Varda employs cinécriture in the picture by informing each image with her charming presence. This essay explores the many different conventions, both aesthetic and narrative-based, that Varda takes on to permeate the film with her enchanting charm. My essay illustrates examples of cinécriture from the film The Beaches of Agnes (2008) that translate Varda’s whimsical recollective style of memory and cinema.

 

The film opens on the Belgium beaches of her childhood as Varda begins to set up her life story that she is now ready to share, delving into the significance of the landscapes of her memories. Varda’s identity is key to her examinations of each memory, refusing to ever acknowledge the external critical labels that audiences continue to attach to her and her films. Varda is determined to tell her own story and define her own life. Delphine Benezet writes on the film; ‘What I find particularly interesting in Les Plages d’Agnès is that Varda presents her own identity as determined by the ever-shifting relationships that she has had with the beaches of her life. The philosopher Frank Kausch rightly calls it a ‘portrait en creux’ and foregrounds the elements that are in contact with and transforming Varda’s identity.’ (2014:94)

 

Varda tells her own story through these memories that she shares with us, showcasing significant people that she has met throughout her life but Varda ensures that she is the narrator of her story. It is evident that she dictates the retelling of her story with the same determined persona that aided her to elevate her artistic career that she explores later in the film. Despite Varda’s chatty and amiable storytelling of family, love, and traveling her independent and resolute role remains clear throughout.

 

Though her focus is on her own personal memories, she never fails to include her favorite subject, people. We are invited to see the world through Varda’s point of view who has an adoration for humanity and the community that she met throughout her life. As Kelley Conway has noted ‘Regardless of whether Varda draws upon the travelogue or the road film, her films continue to emphasize the specificity of “place” and to introduce an array of intriguing and often marginalized people. They also continue to offer a productive tension between a central organizational structure and elements of playful digression.’ (2015:109)

 

However, through Varda’s sustain of informative and reflective narrations, she does not prioritise a conventional sentimentality that attempts to define subjects by their personal lives and defiant struggles which can be found in many other examples of biography. My essay explores how instead, she navigates the juncture of her personal memories and her career, illustrating the ways that art and film have been her core drive in almost every aspect of her life. These stories of love and travel stem from her career as a photographer turned filmmaker who carved out her place as the ‘sister’ of the French New Wave in the 1960’s. Varda’s place as auteur and artist is explored through reflections on her many films, dissecting her development from creating her first film to where she found herself at the time of creating The Beaches of Agnes. Varda gleans memories of success like Vagabond (1985) and Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) to passion projects like Jacquot de Nantes (1991). Varda modestly strolls through her successes, acknowledging the significance of collaborators and community in her accomplishments.

 

My essay is interested in the ways that Varda illustrates these two areas of her life and the ways that she fragments memory and art. The colourful scrapbooks style of her cinema-writing injects the quirky persona that Varda is culturally known for, but this never detracts from the significance of her subjects, honouring each person involved in the memories that she handles. Though we get limited screen time with many different people from her life, Varda ensures each discussion and story that she shares that involves her friends and family are given the care that it deserves. As Claudia Gorbman has written, “The answer is clear: Varda remains the total master of her work and enjoys her cat-and- mouse game with each of us, in our relation with both Agnès the character and Varda, the elusive, always inventive author.” (2010)

 

The Beaches of Agnes is a mosaic of Varda’s memories that she carefully constructs through her cinema-writing. The success of the film comes from this distinctive, charming style and the presence of the auteur herself, who celebrates her own life and art, reflecting on her cinematic history and the communities she met along the way. Though she rejects the conventional closure of documentary, Varda tells her full story in this abundant cinematic pilgrimage of memory and cinema. The film is a bricolage-laden dedication to her memories, identity, and films. This is explored in my video essay which showcases Varda’s talent to force her audience to take an interest in all that she expresses. My essay hopes to explore the ways that Varda garners her memories in her love letter to life and art, memory and home. “Cinema is my home. I have always lived in it.” – Agnes Varda, 2008.

 

The film itself provides such a rich basis for research material and textual analysis, but due to complications from the current pandemic, I had little access to her other works and found a lack of research texts and sources that explore Varda’s cinécriture and documentary work. Her dramas have an abundant critical pool that explores her beginnings as a director, yet Varda herself seems the key source of discussions surrounding her cinematic career and artistic developments.

 

The Beaches of Agnes itself provides a rare, intimate view into the world of Agnes Varda, richer than any external critical works. To hear the auteur, recount her own life alongside her beautifully crafted cinema writing is a joy that is rarely found in other documentaries of its kind.

 

 

 

Song Used – Mozart clarinet quintet in A, K 581.

 

 

 

Bibliography

BARNET, M.-C. (2016). Agnès Varda unlimited image, music, media. Cambridge: Legenda, Modern Humanities Research Association.

BÉNÉZET, D. (2014). The cinema of Agnes Varda: resistance and eclecticism. London, Wallflower Press.

DEROO, R. J. (2018). Agnès Varda between film, photography, and art. University of California Press.

GORBMAN, C. (2010) Place and Play in Agnes Varda’s Cinecriture. http://archive.pov.org/ beachesofagnes/places-and-play/ .

JACKSON, E. (2010). The eyes of Agnès Varda: portraiture, cinécriture and the filmic ethnographic eye. Feminist Review. 96, 122-126.

KELLEY CONWAY. (2015). Agnès Varda. University of Illinois Press

MCNEIL, I. (2010) Memory and the Moving Image: French Film in the Digital Era. Edin- burgh University Press.

SMITH, A. (1998). Agnès Varda. Manchester, Manchester University. Press.

TORLASCO, D. (2011). Digital Impressions: Writing Memory after Agnes Varda. Discourse: Berkeley Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture. 33, 390-408.

 

Filmography

AGNES VARDA WOMEN IN FILM (9th September 2016) YouTube video added by TIFF Originals. [Online]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zF-eX4Zwk3Q [29th January 2021].

Black Panthers. (1968) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

Daguerréotypes. (1976) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

Faces Places. (2017) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

Jacquot de Nantes. (1991) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

Jane B. for Agnes V. (1988) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

La Pointe Courte. (1955) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

Le Bonheur. (1965) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Parc Films.

Murals Murals. (1981) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. (1977) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

The Beaches of Agnes. (2008) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

The Creatures. (1966) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Parc Films.

The Gleaners and I. (2000) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

Uncle Yanco. (1967) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

Vagabond. (1985) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

Varda by Agnes. (2019) Directed by Agnes Varda. France. Ciné Tamaris.

 

´Defiant Muses: Delphine Seyrig and the Feminist Video Collectives in France in the 70s and 80s´at the Queen Sofia, Madrid.

Images from the great ‘Delphine Seyrig Defiant Muses ‘exhibition. The greatness of the exhibition is in conveying a range of feminist practices, collective and social, international, ranging from issues on abortion to sex work to trans performances of classic American plays, to the liberation of video as form, to the value even of unproduced feminist film projects (Calamity Jane). And a range of relationships between women (Duras, Ulrike Ottinger, Agnès Varda, Simone de Beauvoir and so many more whose names don´t mean as much to me. I was delighted to see Jean Genet speaking up for Angela Davis and the Black Panthers as part of the work produced by Seyrig and the feminist collectives she was a part of.

 

Here is the program: defiant muses 1

defiant 2

defiant 3

defiant 4.jpg

defiant 5

defiant 6

 

Plus some more images and text I thought some of you might find interesting:

 

José Arroyo

The ending of Jacquot de Nantes

 

Screenshot 2019-05-12 at 07.57.22.pngI suppose no one can ever know what goes on within a couple. But I do hope someone writes a biography of Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda so we at least get to know a little more than we do now, which is that they met, fell in love, had a child to accompany that of Varda’s from a previous relationship, broke up, got back together in the end. We also know Demy was bisexual. To what extent is Le bonheur autobiographical, if not in plot, in feeling? We know that Demy was dying of AIDS when Varda filmed him for Jacquot de Nantes, something that Demy then wished to be kept secret. And we know that she loved him. Her camera caresses his hair, his face, his body, it pans through his skin, mottled with liver spots, and then on the off-chance you thought she didn’t love him enough, she sings him Terrain vagues by Jacques Prevért, with its beautiful connotations of land and sea, but also of incertitude, of a proximity that ebbs and flows but which nonetheless offers a love to drown oneself in:

Terrain vagues

Démons et merveilles, vents et marées,
Au loin déjà la mer s’est retirée,
Et toi comme une algue,
Doucement caressée par le vent,
Dans les sables du lit,
Tu remues en rêvant.

Démons et merveilles, vents et marées,
Au loin déjà la mer s’est retirée,
Mais dans tes yeux entr’ouverts,
Deux petites vagues sont restées.

Démons et merveilles, vents et marées,
Deux petites vagues

Deux petites larmes

pour me noyer.

 

I’ve translated loosely –I’m no poet, it can only be loosely — as follows:

Demons and wonders, winds and tides,

In the distance already the sea has withdrawn,

And you like an algae,

In a bed of sand gently caressed by the wind,

Dreamily stir,

 

Demons and wonders, winds and tides,

The sea has already withdrawn into the distance,

But two little waves remain in your half-opened eyes.

 

Demons and wonders, winds and tides,

Two little tears,

two little waves,

to drown myself in.

 

 

 

It floors me each time, making me wistful, sad — no one’s loved me like Varda loves Demy — and leaves me admiring: If no one’s loved me like Varda loves Demy, maybe one can learn to love as lovingly, fully, as openly and acceptingly as she.

José Arroyo

A brief reflection on Varda

 

Been going through Varda´s films recently, The Beaches of Agnès is the most recent, and there´s always a moment where a reflection, a memory, a kindness, makes me well up. But reflecting also that one of my younger selves, much more judgmental, would have been irritated by the playfulness, the self-conscious artyness, the constant and self-conscious invocation of high culture, one detects name-dropping enveloped in proclamations of love, possibly read her being so much in the picture as a kind of self-indulgence or narcissism, perhaps read her bricolages as a lack of professionalism. Perhaps. Some of that is still there. But I´m glad I´ve developed into being open to being moved by this work now.

José Arroyo

A note on Cléo de 5 à 7

cleo de 5

There has already been much written on Agnès Varda´s Cleo de 5 à 7, perhaps too much on the sequences featuring Michel Legrand and the silent film within a film with Jean-Luc Godard, Ana Karina, Sami Frey, Eddie Constantine and others. Upon her death earlier this year, I thought it a kind of sexism that these were the bits of her oeuvre that were most circulated, the kind of greatness-by-association that must have characterised and possibly blighted some of her life with Jacques Demy.

Mirrors, Reflections, Compositions

 

Cléo de 5 à 7 is to me as great as anything produced by the French New Wave, with that same exuberant love of and experimentation with cinema that one sees in the best of Godard, Truffaut, or in the same period but in Quebec, Claude Jutra´s À tout prendre. I was dazzled by her compositions, the use of mirrors and reflections, partly to illustrate the duality of Cléo, the pop singer who´s real name is Florence, but partly also to bring the outside into the inside in cafés and bars. She does the same when filming from outside so you see the reflection on the street whilst also seeing the place and characters behind the window.

Cinema

 

The fim begins wittily with a game of tarot cards, filmed in colour, as the main themes of the film are dramatized: she´s a successful pop singer, with a lover who´s rich and kind but whom she´s not quite in love with; she´s got health problems and will only find out if they´re fatal later in the day. She leaves the tarot session certain of her death and wonders around Paris drinking coffee, having anxiety attacks with friends, buying a new hat, commenting on how she´s still beautiful and how beauty might be health. She visits a friend who´s posing nude for an art class, they watch a silent film, she wonders around a park and meets a man who she takes to. Amidst the bustle of the city, the friendships, the art, there´s the presence of death. But of love too.

That´s the plot, structured through  several episodes timed chronologically that last the duration of the film to replicate real time: the film would have been more accurately titled Cléo de 5 á 6:30, but then it would have lost the sexual connotations of 5 à 7, sex in the afternoon, often, as is hinted here, with a married man. The allusion is further underlined with the discussion later in the film of  Cléo de Mérode, the dancer and singer who is best known for being one of the most famous courtesans of the Belle Epoque.

But that´s not the whole movie. There are also marvellous rides where personal troubles are placed in the context of the moveable feast that is the city itself, one with a female cab driver who chats about the pleasures and difficulties of being one. Paris is as much a character in the movie as anyone but Cléo, and in Cléo, women are literally in the driver´s seat. Structurally, the story is told episodically but as if in real time. It´s got a marvellous mise-en-scène, compositions that expressively optimise space; there is shopping, posing, singing, discussions about art, love and politics that seep through, are on the radio, overheard. The editing is as inventive and expressive as anything in the French New Wave. And of course there are several songs, of which the one below is a stand-out, partly because of the beauty of the song itself, how it comments on Cléo´s life, but also how the camera swirls around her until a moment of self-recognition where she sings and cries directly at us, the audience:

This is a film by a young woman in love with cinema. and about a character in love with Paris, life and love, all in the midst of destructive forces, political and physiological, that are outside her control and present her with an existential crisis. It´s a film that flows beautifully and leaves one buoyant. I could kick myself for waiting until the age of 56 to see it. I hope you´re not as dumb.

This is what Varda herself has to say about Cléo in Les plages d’Agnès:

 

Bertrand Tavernier, in his wonderful A Personal Journey Through French Cinema, was the publicist for the film, and offers this lovely reminiscence:

José Arroyo

La Pointe Courte (Agnès Varda, France, 1955)

la pointe courte

A young couple played Phillipe Noiret and Sylvia Monfort arrive from Paris to mend their relationship. He’s a native of the Pointe Courte, the place where fishermen live and work in Sète, in the South of France, where the film is set. He´s arrived first and has gone to the train station for the past five days in the hope that she´ll arrived so he can show her where he´s from.  She’s a Parisian and has come to break up with him after four years of marriage.

Screenshot 2019-04-17 at 14.39.17.png

La Pointe Courte is his home and he hopes that by getting to know it she´ll come to understand him better. And the film is as much about the place and its people as it is about the couple. We see they’re fishermen, at odds with the authorities about fishing in a lagoon, getting around the rules and paying the price for it when they get caught. We get to see a whole way of life, eating, working, mending, the men’s jousts and the women’s work too. Varda has an eye for the details of hanging up the washing, mending the socks.

The place is beautiful but harsh too, the work is hard, the room families live in are mean and cramped; a child dies, one sees a dead cat buffeted by the waves, near the end a child pleads with its parents to not drown all the cats and at least let one live. Varda has an eye for that which is beautiful, striking, notable. and if it´s not there for her to capture she makes it so through the ways she composes the images in the frame. One can see this film as a silent film and still enjoy it. Alain Resnais did the editing and he overlaps dialogue with images, poetic ones, that powerfully evoke place and a way of life.

The central couple are filmed as if in a Bergman film (though this is before Bergman made these types of shots famous in films like Persona), their faces forming ninety degree angles, his looking at her, she looking at the horizon, then vice-verca; everything overly ‘arty’ as they endlessly discuss their relationship, each other, the differences between how they love their love and how they love the other, insisting that it’s not the same thing.

Their love story is counterpoised with that of a young couple whose relationship is first forbidden by the girl’s father and finally permitted to be, partly because of his skill at jousting, by the girl’s cantankerous father. Phillippe Noiret is very young and in some shots almost handsome as the young native of the town who’s escaped this life he loves and moved to Paris. A film that is beautiful to see and beautiful to hear, with light regional songs edited to the gentle rhythms of a way of life. There’s a pragmatic kindness in evoking the every day and making it significant, in the making of  poetry out of poor people´s quotidian life. It´s a lovely film.

In Les plages d’Agnès (1988), Varda re-visits La pointe courte and has this to say about what inspired the film’s structure:

..and this on some visual influences:

 

In José Arroyo

A Conversation with Rosa Bosch

DSC02033.jpg

I was invited to participate in a discussion on Una mujer fantástica/ A Fantastic Woman with the legendary Rosa Bosch, now also Honorary Visiting Professor at Warwick, and thought I’d grab the opportunity to lasso her from her busy schedule and into a conversation on her extraordinary career. In fact no lassoing was necessary, and she was as open and generous with her time, experience and knowledge as anyone could wish for. And great fun.

 

Born in Barcelona in 1962, part of the last generation to have experienced Franco’s dictatorship, Bosch depicts her career as peripatetic. She dropped out of studying chemistry, fell in love with an American, moved to LA around 84-85, and began working at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, where because of her language skills, her first task was looking after Agnès Varda, Yevtushenko, and Tarkovsky. When the AFI decided to send someone to Havana, the American embargo and Bosh’s speaking Spanish contributed to her being chosen as the delegate. The Havana film festival was then the focal point and agenda setter for Latin American film cultures world-wide; and as Bosch tells it, Latin American cinema and culture has been, in one way or another, at the centre of her life ever since.

 

Names like Pedro Almodóvar, Fernando Trueba, Wim Wenders, Terry Gilliam, Fernando Birri, Gabriel García Marquez (Gabo), and Julie Christie pepper the conversation. She’s got a connection to Warwick through John King and pays homage to Sheila Whitaker who brought over to London to help bring Latin American cinema to the London Film Festival.

Bosch  shares anecdotes about the screening of Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone at the Toronto Film Festival falling on 9/11; about the great Maria Luisa Bemberg taking her under her wing; about the making of The Buena Vista Social Club and about how Julie Christie sparked her re-connecting once more with The University of Warwick. The conversation ranges through various aspects of her extraordinary career – she’s been engaged with the business of culture in almost every capacity from curating to finding money for films like Amores Perros to developing campaigns so that films succeed in reaching their audience– right up to her producing the legendary Karl Lagerfeld/Chanel show in Cuba, which catwalked its way down Havana’s legendary Prado and evoked a clash of ideologies still heatedly discussed today.

The conversation can be listened to here:

Many thanks to Alison Ribeiro de Menezes and the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Warwick for arranging the event and making the interview possible.

 

José Arroyo