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French Cinema

Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnes, France 2008)


The 'beach' in Paris outside Varda's home in the Rue Daguerre (named after Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of photography)

The French movie channel Cinémoi is currently free for a two month period on Virgin cable in the UK and I’m trying to see as many films as possible. Les plages d’Agnès is Agnès Varda’s autobiographical essay about her life and work and I wasn’t sure what to expect – despite being a fan. I needn’t have worried. This is a magical film which is as much about Varda’s visual ideas as an artist as it is about cinema. The title refers to various beaches (or at least coastlines) that feature strongly in her life story plus a beach of the imagination that she creates to represent the Parisian period when she met Jacques Demy, her partner for 30 years before his death just as she finished her film about him, Jacquot de Nantes in 1990.

Agnès Varda (born 1928) left Belgium in 1940 when the Nazis invaded and ended up in the Mediterranean port of Sète in Vichy France. This is the second ‘beach’ – although she spent her time on boats and the dockside. The first beach is in Belgium. From Sète she eventually graduated as an art student bound for Paris. Art led in turn to photography and film and her first film in 1954, La Pointe Courte, was set in a fishing village close to Sète. Other beaches are near Nantes and on the coast of Southern California where she went with Demy in the late 1960s.

This is a fascinating film in terms of structure as well as ideas about cinema and art and various filmic techniques. The beach on the Île de Noirmoutier in La Vendée, Pays du la Loire, takes the place of a stage in a one woman show – complete with actors and circus performers acting out aspects of memory. One of the interesting visual devices involves mirrors and frames with a central moving image framed by smaller static images. Perhaps the standout device that I almost feel tempted to try out myself is a film of the streets and characters in Sète shot in the 1950s which is projected onto a small screen. The projector and screen are secured on a cart which is then pushed around the same streets in the dusk, which makes the black and white images clearly visible  – and stunning and beautiful in the simplicity of the sequence.

We learn a lot about Varda, her love for Demy and her two children – who appeared in many of her films. We also learn about her friends including Godard, Resnais and Chris Marker and something of her politics and thoughts about being in California with the Black Panthers amongst others. As many other commentators have noted, what is so uplifting and inspiring is the sheer vitality and imagination of this remarkable filmmaker, scampering about (a “plump and pleasant person” as she describes herself) and producing beautiful and fascinating images. I think anyone despairing of cinema at a time when it seems to be losing some of its magic should watch Beaches and rejoice.

This trailer illustrates some of the points made above:

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