Monday, April 06, 2009

Not just my favorite film at this year's film festival, but one of the best I've seen in years

My Favorite Film at the 2009 Wisconsin Film Festival
Now that the Wisconsin Film Festival has started to recede into the blurred vision of memory, there's one film that remains as joyous and sharply etched in my mind as when I first watched it, entranced: The Beaches of Agnes (Les Plages d'Agnes), by the indomitable 80-year-old French filmmaker, photographer and installation artist, Agnes Varda. It was not only my favorite film at this year's festival, but one of the best films I've seen in years. I don't normally collect DVDs, but this is one I can't wait to buy when it comes out. It's one of those films you want to have close at hand like a favorite book. (It's not just me: The French Union of Film Critics chose The Beaches of Agnes as best French film of the year. It also went on to win "Best Documentary" from the Academy des Cesars -- the "French Oscars.")

It's hard to describe the film and do it justice. You could call it a film memoir, but that doesn't capture the mix of wisdom, joy, humor, whimsy, melancholy, beauty and film technique that this extraordinary film provides. The image here is one of many that keep flashing through my mind. It's Agnes dancing on the beach dressed in black, with her children and grandchildren dancing in white.

Rather than ramble on and on, I want to share two remarkable essays I came across online. One is by British film blogger David Berridge, who wrote about The Beaches of Agnes after it showed at the London Film Festival last fall.
If there was one film at this years London Film Festival festival that had me leaving the cinema newly empowered about the possibilities of cinema it was also the film by the festival's oldest director, and may, the rumour goes, have been her final film.

Not that the film revealed anything but a vital, active creativity, theoretical sophistication and a delicious wit. I so relished Agnes Varda's Les Plages d'Agnes for several reasons. It was a case study in how the most complex ideas about form and cinema can be explored through wit, humour, personal confession and eccentricity. Secondly, related to this, because it could engage with a whole range of experience and imagery: from feminist marches to a giant cartoon cat version of Chris Marker, from domestic life to celebrity portraits to studies of those living off rubbish gleaned in the street. Thirdly, it was an essay about the meaning of a life pervaded in cinema. Future historians could do no worse than show Les Plages d'Agnes alongside Godard's Histoire du Cinema when trying to fathom the meaning of a society based around representations of itself in film.
The other is a long love letter to Varda by the equally indomitable Roger Ebert, whose writing on film has only grown more passionate and lyrical since cancer ended his TV career.
Dear Agnes Varda. She is a great director and a beautiful, lovable and wise woman, through and through. It is not enough that she made some of the first films of the French New Wave. That she was the Muse for Jacques Demy. That she is a famed photographer and installation artist. That she directed the first appearances on film of Gerard Depardieu, Phillipe Noiret--and Harrison Ford! Or that after gaining distinction as a director of fiction, she showed herself equally gifted as a director of documentaries. And that she still lives, as she has since the 1950s, in the rooms opening off each side of a once-ruined Paris courtyard, each room a separate domain.

That is not enough, because her greatest triumph is her life itself. She comes walking toward us on the sand in the first shot of "The Beaches of Agnes," describing herself as "a little old lady, pleasantly plump." Well, she isn't tall. But somehow she isn't old. She made this film in her 80th year, and she looks remarkably similar to 1967, when she brought a film to the Chicago Film Festival. Or the night I had dinner with her, Jacques and Pauline Kael at Cannes 1976. Or when she was at Montreal 1988. Or the sun-blessed afternoon when we three had lunch in their courtyard in 1990. Or when she was on the jury at Cannes 2005.
This is a must-read for anyone who cares about film or art. Ebert concludes by placing Agnes Varda in a great tradition:
At Illinois I had a class that made a great impression on me, taught by the famous critic Sherman Paul, about the organic tradition in literature. As models he held up such as Emerson, Thoreau, Louis Sullivan, Edmund Wilson, William Carlos Williams. These men, he said, created as a part of their lives, not as a separate cerebral activity. My professor would have approved of Varda. She never studied film. She never moved in circles with Sartre, Beauvoir and other cafe philosophers who measured out their lives with coffee spoons. She simply went to work, doing what felt right to her, filming, photographing and designing what came to hand. For her there is no distinction between fiction and documentary, for they are both ways of observing and feeling.

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