William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” History and memory never stop affecting us — the past is as much a part of the present as we are.
Agnès Varda, who modeled the alternating structure of her first film, 1954's La Pointe Courte, after Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, plays with this Faulknerian notion of time and memory in her latest movie, the memoir-ish documentary The Beaches of Agnès. The film opens with Varda walking cautiously backward across a beach at dusk, while she narrates, “I’m playing the part of the little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative, telling her life story.”
In Beaches, Varda, now 81, is walking backward through her life and work, reconsidering her films and loves, and, as always, unable to play by the typical rules of form. She begins her recollections with a riff about her childhood beach vacations in Belgium, looking at old photographs in the sand and arranging mirrors about herself. When the film digresses into a re-enactment of a childhood memory — two young girls building sandcastles — she walks into the scene and interrupts it. “I don’t know what it means to re-create a scene like this,” she says. “Do we relive the moment? To me it’s cinema, it’s a game.”
If cinema has been a game for Varda, she’s played well. Known by some as the grandmother of French New Wave, Varda’s earliest films predate Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol’s work and certainly belong in the same canon. Yet, The Beaches of Agnès isn’t the indulgent celebration of self that memoirs often resemble. Varda's more interested in the way memory works, playfully creating surreal set pieces to mimic entanglements of time and memory. We see her film production company as an arrangement of desks and computers, placed in the middle of a street, on top of sand, and below makeshift, wooden seagulls. We see her comfortably reflecting on a bed placed in the open belly of a beached, handmade whale. Varda's willing to be as silly as she is heady. The combination is mesmerizing.
Varda barely touches on proper chronology in Beaches, lining her story with digressions and skipping back or ahead when the occasion fits. Often, she’d rather tell the stories of her friends and lovers than her own. Varda’s touching eulogy to her late husband, the director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) who died in 1990 of an AIDS-related illness, dominates a good portion of the film. As an octogenarian, Varda is all too familiar with the experience of placing flowers on the grave of a friend. Yet, The Beaches of Agnès is her argument that the past has not died. It lives, like Varda, in the cinema.