The agile and affectionate Agnès

Freddie Wong (Film critic, film director)

It might be whimsical, or perhaps destiny that Varda changed her first name Arlette to Agnès at the age 18. When the iconic name “Agnès” is mentioned, it refers to Agnès Varda without doubt, a name most well known in the international film world – with the except of “Agnès b” perhaps. But Agnès Varda is phenomenal, the most unique.

In the year I graduated from the secondary school, I started to study French and became a fan of French films at the same time.  The French-written script I bought for a close reading during my study in France was Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1961).  I read the script thoroughly, and Corinne Marchand, the leading actress, has such feminine charm that still enchant me even now. Agnes' film scripts are written with a literary flavor, and her films are experimental. As the name of the film suggests, Cléo de 5 à 7 depicts how the singer Cléo spent her time from five to seven pm. Cléo, who was waiting for the health examination report, went for a Tarot card reading and drew a Death card. She thus threw herself into the streets of Paris, roaming among alleys and coffee shops with an unspeakable gloominess. Time in the film corresponds to the time in the reality, and was shot with such vanguard technique.

Perhaps we could describe the world in Agnes’ films as “agile” and “affectionate” ── these two words apply to Agnès’ earliest drama Cléo done in half a century ago as well as documentary work such as Les plages d'Agnès (The Beaches of Agnes, 2008), which wasfilmed four years ago. Most people consider the year 1959 as the beginning of French New Wave, when Godard and Truffaut made their first films. Yet Agnès had made the first feature length debut La Pointe Courte (La Pointe-Courte) early in 1954. Alain Resnais, who later stunned the world with Hiroshima mon amour, was the editor of Agnès’ debut. In fact, the successful career of several influential New Wave filmmakers had close ties with Agnès, which she recounted in Les plages d'Agnès.

Agnès’ husband Jacques Demy, director of Lola, The umbrellas of Cherbourg, and The Young Girls of Rochefort, was without doubt more famous than her when he was still alive.  It was a pity that Demy passed away in 1990, and the world of screens had thus lost half of a great filmmaker couple. In remembrance of her husband Demy, Agnès made the biography film Jacquot de Nantes a year after. At the very beginning of her filmmaking career, Agnès had tried her hands on various genres, she could always handle each of them with great ease whether it is drama, documentary, lengthy or short films. Jacquot de Nantes is a drama as well as a documentary, and characters, affection and memories were the most significant elements of this film. 

Agnès has been walking back and forth in such an agile, affectionate way for over five decades. The beach scene in La Pointe-Courte was retrieved in Les plages d'Agnès, in which the silver-hair Agnès talked about the past years of her flowering youth. She is now an eighty-year-old lady in Les plages d'Agnès and she talks with deep affection and agility, just as the way she used to be. I believe Agnès is happy. Though her husband died young, the kindness and tenderness bonds them lastingly. A real artist will be forever young and happy.

In contrast to her early drama Vagabond (Vagabond, 1985) and documentary Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners & I, 2000) ten years ago, Les plages d'Agnès shows a rare tint of buoyancy, gentleness and gracefulness. The author’s affection and hope for life, love, past memory, old friends, art, culture and film are abundant in this film.  Such agility and affection elated the film to the highest achievement of documentary.  Most extraordinary of all, as an eighty-year-old lady, Agnès was not in the least long-winded. Her documentary had a light rhythm and profound content, and people could not help but to watch it again and again.  Anecdotes of the French cinema as recounted in the film are especially precious.  Agnès never falls into melodrama or sentimentalism, showing us an attitude toward life with her ease and openness even though directors and stars around her gradually passed away. Hopefully she will live long, just like the Portuguese Manoel de Oliveira and Kaneto Shindo from Japan.

Agnès and Demy have a son named Mathieu Demy. He is quite handsome and has been playing a part in more than ten films. Last year, I saw his Americano inToronto International Film Festival— it is a French production and his debut as director and scriptwriter. The leading character played by Salma Hayek was named Lola, which apparently pays tribute to his father Jacques Demy. In Americano, we see excerpt of home video recounting their family life in Los Angeles, USA in the 1980s. This excerpt was organically integrated into the plots of the film. Americano is certainly not an autobiography of the Demy family. Yet the way that Mathieu Demy projects these historical images of his family into the film is not merely fascinating but full of familial warmth as well. It is such a beautiful legend that Mathieu Demy follows in his parents’ footsteps and become a director.