‘I inhabit the cinema,’ Agnès Varda says at the end of her autobiographical film, The Beaches of Agnès. ‘It’s my house. It seems I have always lived here.’ Of course we understand her metaphorically, even if we wouldn’t put it past the bag-lady character she plays at various moments in this work to set up house inside some forgotten foyer. At one point she films a protest march, many young people carrying signs urgently calling out for change. Varda herself suddenly appears on the sidelines, a little old lady, as she calls herself, also carrying a placard. It says ‘J’ai mal partout’ – ‘I hurt everywhere.’ This phrase also has a metaphorical freight, an implication of the pain of the world; but the freight is light, and quickly swept away by the literal meaning. One can protest against old age.

The proposition about the cinema is doubly complicated. First, because it doesn’t seem to be true. This whole film pictures Varda as a photographer who made movies, or a collector of pieces of the world who found in the movie camera her preferred means of storage. And second because as she speaks about inhabiting the cinema, she is sitting in a room constructed out of the celluloid strips of her film Les Créatures (1966) hung vertically side by side to form moveable walls, a square of curtains. Clearly she doesn’t live in this room, she is comically making her metaphor literal for a moment. Still, she is in the room, and therefore inside something, if not the cinema or even her own film, since a film without a projector is not a film. She is inside the material remnant of a film she herself says no one liked; inside what could be spliced back into reels and shown if she were not using it for interior design. She is inhabiting cinema in a very special sense: situating herself at a certain stage of film-making, both before and after the screenable fact.

We could also think she is just making a bad joke, indulging in elegantly shot whimsy. Or perhaps she is patronising us and the very art form she claims to celebrate. Without visual aids we shan’t see what she means; without something to see we’re lost. That’s what the cinema is: visual confirmation of what we know already. This is a very impoverished idea of film; perhaps she should inhabit something else. But then she may already be inhabiting something else, since whatever she is doing with this elaborate staging or photographing of metaphor, she is doing it all the time in this movie – not at great expense in terms of equipment but at an absurdly high price if you think of the labour of hands and imagination required to get some of these fleeting images physically in front of a camera.

At one point Varda is telling us about the narrow mews in Paris where she lived for much of her adult life. She parked her deux-chevaux at the end, and had to manoeuvre intensely to get it in and out. Has she got a bit of footage which will show this amusing detail? If she has, she’s not revealing it. We see her behind the wheel of a cardboard car, which she is manifestly pulling along herself, wiggling backwards and forwards – and which turns out to be only a side of a cardboard car, painted as if it were a cartoon. The effect is that of a fairground sideshow, real head in fake frame, and we can’t take the scene as an earnest attempt at picturing the past. A picture of a failure to picture the past, then? Not quite. It is a mild and passing mockery of our need for pictures, and quietly captures a certain pathos in that need. It’s not that we can’t see the past – or the present. It’s that what we see, the images we collect, the surviving evidence, feels so skimpy compared with what we thought we might see, or what we actually perceive or remember.

This sense of busily constructing images that can’t keep their promises is, I think, what cinema means for Varda, this activity is what she inhabits, from her first film, La Pointe-courte (1954), to Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000) and including her marvellous film about her husband, Jacques Demy, Jacquot de Nantes (1991). And she insists on this sense right from the start of The Beaches of Agnès. We are on a literal beach, of course. Varda totters towards us, her movements made awkward by the pebbles. She says she has always felt that if one opened people up, one would see landscapes. And if one opened her up, one would see … beaches. Hence her title, which in French (Les Plages d’Agnès) sounds rather more like les neiges d’antan than like an advertisement for Skegness.

The beach image is a lead-in to a nostalgic account of her war years spent at Sète on the Mediterranean and various glancing memories of her years with Demy at Noirmoutier in the Vendée – location of the wonderfully bleak backdrop of Les Créatures. But at this moment, at the start of the film, she is on a Belgian beach and close in thought to her childhood (she was born in Brussels in 1928; changed her first name from Arlette to Agnès when she was 18). And what she is doing now is making a film of herself trying to set up a film, specifically trying to arrange a whole deck of mirrors, large and small, with and without frames, on this windy beach. She gives instructions; her assistants move the mirrors about. The mirrors catch bits of human movement, whole swathes of sea. Or to be precise, the camera catches what the mirrors catch, and also, of course, catches much else, including the mirrors. What is all this about?

Very roughly, an ancient and easy set of tropes – film as reflection, autobiography as a look in the mirror, reality as prismatic, always a matter of angles of vision – is being constructed as filmable. It is filmable, but it’s not interesting in that form – it’s not that interesting in any form – and the literal mirrors, the supposed technical support of an idea, quickly part company with all ideas and start working as unmotivated film objects, the way railway tracks, for example, or glasses of milk, work in Hitchcock.

Varda recounts her film-making career fairly straight – allowing for a magical boat ride that goes directly from Sète to the Seine in central Paris. She makes her early New Wave films, notably Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) and Le Bonheur (1965), visits China and Cuba, makes some terrible movies in America, represented by a rather long moment in The Beaches of Agnès where the film seems to lose its wits and its way. She returns to France and regains a bit of credibility with Vagabond (1985). But meanwhile, in the course of this reconstruction, Varda has found her most recent movie’s true mode and subject: elegy and unrepeatable death.

At first we may think we’re in a movie version of Roland Barthes’s theory of photography, where the still shot represents the irrefutable life of what is now dead, of what was always going to die. This is how Varda sets up, on film, the photos she once took of Gérard Philipe and Jean Vilar, magnificent, larger than life images not so much of actors as of acting itself, the very idea of French theatre. No one could be more alive than these picture-figures in their pictures; and consequently no one could be more dead outside the picture. But when we get to Varda’s account of Jacques Demy’s dying, of Aids, we realise the cinema has a quite different temporality, as Barthes suggested it had. The photo, according to Barthes, says of its subject: ‘Cela est mort et cela va mourir.’ The film Jacquot de Nantes shows Demy dying, ‘en train de mourir’, as Varda says, and within ten days of her finishing the film he was dead. In the photo, if we accept this extravagant mythology, life is always already dead; in the film it’s always dying. I don’t know which is worse, but when Varda, in The Beaches of Agnès, lets her camera run slowly in close-up over Demy’s grey-black hair, finally finding a face at the end of what seemed to be a tour of a forest or a field, I know we are seeing a bit of once cherished organic matter as an instance of ultimate otherness, the way anyone might look when no one is looking. No one except the cameraman, that is, and he isn’t looking either, it turns out, because he seems to have left the set. An old dream of cinema, from Virginia Woolf to Stanley Cavell. Life gesticulates or vegetates; the camera keeps rolling.

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