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.
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.
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.