The Tide Turns for Agnès Varda

Agnès Varda is a legendary French director and so-called “grandmother of the French New Wave;” a woman whose friendship has had a tremendous influence on my life.

In a manner of speaking, I’ve been preparing this article for more than 28 years. I met Agnès in California in 1981 and we have been friends ever since. Despite our long-standing amity, I don’t have the slightest trepidation in declaring The Beaches of Agnès a bonafide masterpiece. Call it favoritism or say that I have a soft spot for her; it’s beside the point. The fact is, whether or not you are curious about the prolific life of this seminal moviemaker, it’s a perfect way to spend 90 minutes relishing a terrific story by a marvelous raconteur.

Many others who have never met Agnès agree with me. Released last winter in France to tremendous critical acclaim, The Beaches of Agnès won the César for Best Documentary in February. Watching the movie, you’ll learn everything you need to know about this energetic, bold artist who has adeptly and lovingly juggled her roles of wife, mother, grandmother, CEO, feminist, director, author, producer and photographer.

What’s really amazing about The Beaches of Agnès is that to appreciate it, you don’t have to be familiar with any of Agnès’ other features like Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, Les créatures, Kung-Fu master! or One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. Nor do you need to have seen any of her shorts or documentaries, like the one filmed all on her street, Daguerréotypes, or her empathetic look at scavengers, The Gleaners & I. You’ll be treated to snippets of all of them along with Agnès’ illuminating commentary about each film’s emotional significance.

So why the beaches?

“If you open up most people,” Agnès explains, “you’ll find landscapes. If they opened me up, they’d find beaches.”

I suppose all human beings are beach lovers, looking across the horizon for some truth about ourselves; finding solace and peace between sea and shore. In The Beaches of Agnès, Agnès’ memorable places are not just physical places, they are beaches of the mind that make her dream, ponder, create and, most of all, remember loved ones—be they people, images or words.

“I grew up loving art and poetry,” she says of her childhood, which was irrevocably interrupted in 1940 when her family fled their home in Brussels during the German invasion of Belgium to join the panicked exodus of survivors traveling south just ahead of the rain of Nazi bombs. The Varda family ended up residing on a little boat moored in the tiny Mediterranean port of Sète, known for being the home of folksinger Georges Brassens and site of an annual festival of joisting, pastis-soaked sailors in face-to-face combat, teetering on the bows of their counter-attacking rowboats.

Varda adds a César award to her collection, which includes a Cannes Golden Palm, a Lumiere, and the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion.

In one of my favorite scenes in The Beaches of Agnès, Agnès takes the rudder of a lateen-style fishing boat and sails all by herself out of Sète harbor and into the open sea. In the next shot, she is steering the boat up the Seine past the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame; the solitary voyage of the creative soul.

After the war, Agnès studied art history at L’École du Louvre, where she fell for poets like Baudelaire, Rilke and Prévert. She began working as a photographer and would have had a world-class career in that field, too, if she had stuck with it. “I thought if I added sound to photographs, that would be cinema. I had a lot to learn.”

Varda’s candid self-portrait is really a road movie that takes us inside this unstoppable lady’s honey-combed, 81-year-old memory. It’s a private, passionate journey along a sandy cinematic road map that begins in Belgium, winds its way down to the French Mediterranean, skips west to California, circles back to Noirmoutier Island off of France’s Atlantic coast and finally comes around to a fanciful, specially-created Parisian beach in front of Agnès’ colorful apartment building on Rue Daguerre in the 14th Arrondissement.

I knocked on that famous front door one recent Sunday afternoon and Agnès herself let me in. After the mandatory pecks on both cheeks, she rapidly introduced me to a photo editor who was helping her with a new photo-video installation that she is preparing for a museum opening this summer.

Since I met her, Agnès has been turning out shorts, features, books, photographs and now these happenings in museums all over the world. Sunday or not, this round little fireball of a woman, now moving resolutely into her ninth decade, is still bubbling with creative juices.

Agnès gave the editor his marching orders, then gave me mine: “Go over to the kitchen while I finish here. I’ll make us a pot of tea. There are some sweetcakes from the local patisserie I think you’ll like.” To walk through Agnès’ home is to zig-zag between production offices, living rooms and salons, all chock full of books, artwork, rugs and antique furniture. It is peaceful in there.

Godmother of the French New Wave: Varda in the 1970s.

After some pleasant wandering, I stepped down into a long, open-air interior courtyard where Agnès had shot one crucial scene for The Beaches of Agnès. Across the way was her tiled kitchen where, before I knew it, she was steeping the tea and serving those exquisite marzipan gateaux.

We talked about The Beaches of Agnès and reminisced about some of our own shared memories. “Many old people wish to tell their life,” she says. “As an old filmmaker, with the enthusiasm and energy of my youth, I tried to find a style and a form to tell my memories, my encounters, the ups and downs of my life. I shot my film as a kaleidoscope, a collage, a fantasy.”

When I first met Agnès in Los Angeles, she had just released the 65-minute Documenteur and was heading back to Paris. I found the film courageous and inspiring, as did many critics. Telling me to come visit her when next in Paris, Agnès left for France and had me interview Sabine Mamou, one of the film’s editors, who also played the lead role of a single mother trying to raise her son, played by Agnès’ own son, Mathieu Demy. Shot with mostly handheld cameras, the film established the Varda style of mixing fiction and reality to create a different kind of film experience.

Demy has since gone on to become a respected actor in his own right, with scores of movie credits. Sabine, who became a good friend, sadly passed on in 2003 from cancer. Seeing Sabine again in the clip from Documenteur that is melded into The Beaches of Agnès made my heart skip a beat.

In the following years, I took Agnès up on her invitation to stop in at her place on Rue Daguerre. On one of those visits in 1983, just after my first visit to the Cannes Film Festival, I was telling her how inspiring Cannes had been for me. I also complained about the maddeningly abrupt way they treated festival-goers—pushing people around, not letting anyone talk to the VIPs except other VIPs. Agnès stopped me like a cold shower after a sauna with some very good advice for a brash young man: “It’s too easy to criticize what others have created. If you want to attend a more democratic, more decent festival, start one yourself.”

A light went off in my brain.

The following summer in Avignon, I launched the French-American Film Workshop, which evolved into the Avignon Film Festival (as well as an American version called the Avignon/New York Film Festival), a 25-year adventure of bringing together American, French and, later, European moviemakers in Provence and Manhattan. That first year in Avignon, among guests like John Sayles and Coline Serreau, was Agnès. She came back many times to present her films and talk about her work.

I asked Agnès for the real reason she initiated The Beaches of Agnès, undertaking at this point in her life a very revealing, sometimes painful, sometimes comical self-portrait. She said it was about her family. “I wanted them to know who this little old lady really was, what she had done with her life, whom she had loved… To instruct them, to inspire them, to leave them my memories. I also wanted to recount my meeting with Jacques Demy, our life together, our children, our travels and then his illness and death. That grand love adventure was such a significant part of my life, weaving itself into my work as a filmmaker.”

Demy was, of course, the renowned director whose two masterpieces, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), were box-office smashes and received Oscar nominations. He was also the father of Agnès’ two children, Rosalie and Mathieu.

Varda and Jacques Demy stayed married until the iconic director’s death in 1990.

Making movies on Rue Daguerre was a family business. Demy and Varda supported each other when needed, but kept a respectful distance from each other’s work. Their great collaboration came at the end of Demy’s life, when Demy began to write down memories of his youth in Nantes, and Agnès asked him, “Jacques, do you want me to make a film of these?” Demy said he did, and Agnès began to produce and direct the charming Jacquot de Nantes that very day. Demy passed away only days after the film was completed.

‘What’s your secret?’ I ask her.

“I’ve always liked to work hard. I’ve always been curious. I’ve never been concerned with commercial success. And I’ve been good at getting everyone to play with me at whatever game I’ve concocted.”

But is The Beaches of Agnès really her last film?

“Yes,” she says. “The effort and expense of making movies is a little too much for me these days. Of course I’m going to continue working,” she reassures. “Doing installations, books, photographs. There are so many things I want to do with my time. And there’s my family, the grandchildren, who need my attention.”

I was reminded of a long-ago weekend when Agnès and I went down to the Spanish fishing village of Cadaqués along with Mathieu. He was just a little boy and she had wanted him to visit the Catalan coast. I had lived there for a few years and wanted to show it to them from my perspective. As soon as I suggested the trip, she was ready to go.

We drove across the French border and along the winding road that lead to Cadaqués, world-famous as an artist’s haven and the place where I had met Salvador Dalí and played chess with Marcel Duchamp. Sunday morning that spring weekend in Cadaqués was sunny but chilly. The Catalan tradition was to go out in fishing boats and snag female sea urchins from the rocky coastline, crack them in half, then eat the precious eggs without getting their spines in your fingers.

I left Agnès and Mathieu on the beach in an abandoned cove, put on a wet suit and swam out along the rocks, plucking a basketful of the prickly urchins for us. As I was swimming back with our sea snacks, I looked up and, through my goggles, was surprised to see Agnès walking barefoot and knee-deep in the sea on some precarious, rocky outcropping, her long skirt hiked up, bending over, harvesting sea urchins herself from the churning waters.

Not content to simply wait on the beach and do nothing, she wanted to participate in the adventure—oblivious to the freezing sea and slippery, foot-slicing rocks. She returned my surprised gaze with a broad smile, genuinely happy with the sea lapping at her thighs. I will always remember her that way, already in her 60s, yet still a child of the sea. MM

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