I'm going to do something I don't normally do, which is to attempt to pull an Anthony Lane, and find some common denominator in the two very different films I've just watched. Beaches of Agnes and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown have more in common that you might think, although I might be the main link between them. The latter came to me accidentally. I'm a member of Facets, a Chicago based film organization that has a Netflix-esque rental program. I was told through an automatic email that I was receiving Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie in the mail. Terribly excited, I tore open the package to find Women on the Verge instead. This was a movie I had always wanted to see anyway, and I took it as a sign from the universe. Agnes Varda is, after watching her latest, my newest fascination. I even recently got a haircut that is exactly like hers, circa 1968. Needless to say, I am feeling spiritual, my stars aligned with my cinematic muses. Aside from my cosmic attachments, the obvious connection between these two movies is that they demonstrate both a love affair with cinema, and an examination of the nature of love itself.
Involving an actress who has recently been abandoned by her playboy boyfriend, Almodovar's film wears its influences on its sleeve. Throughout the movie you find echoes of Fellini, even Hitchcock. (One of my favorite scenes is distinctly Rear Window.) It is a movie lovers movie, but there is something about its playfulness that is distinctly Almodovar. The whole set up seems artificial, the colors too vivid to be real, the view off of Pepa's (Carmen Maura) balcony idyllic and sleepy like a backdrop from Singin' in the Rain.
This movie might fall under the genre of slapstick comedy, except it has moments where it rejoices in its reflexivity for the sheer joy of it. There are elegant moments, eerie moments, and ridiculous ones. The whole shtick reminds me a lot of Diva and the Cinema Du Look, a seemingly brief movement in French film was founded on a lot of the things I just mentioned-- aesthetic appeal and self-reflexivity. When the camera is tracking Lucia (Julieta Serrano), hair flattened behind her by the wind, it is to highlight her insanity, but also because like us, the camera is enthralled by the beauty of the moment.
Despite all of this image fascination, there is a recurring sense of voice as something distinctly separate from the image. This begins as Pepa and her former lover, Ivan (Fernando Guillen) record Spanish dialogue for a film that plays, larger than life, in the background of the shot. Then, the answering machine and the telephone might as well be main characters in this movie as well. It is her lover's voice that Pepa misses the most, and she notes that she would know it anywhere. Even when it comes out of another actor's mouth.
Being captivated by images is by no means unusual in the world of cinema, but Agnes Varda has a more special relationship with images than most. Varda is literally as old as the hills, and looking shrewish and wizened in her latest documentary. But simultaneously, she is ever child-like, viewing the world with the playfulness of someone a fraction of her age. This constant ability to see and appreciate the new is what is the most revealing of her genius.
Varda embraces digital filmmaking as freely as she does self-examination. Here it is her own life she places in the frame. Though what this documentary reveals is that nearly every one of her endeavors has been, in some sense, self-examination. Still a gleaner, this time Varda sifts through the ephemera of her past, some of it already immortalized through cinema, some of it incredibly intimate details of her home life. She examines her life as a wife and mother, and finally, as a widow. She examines a family life intertwined with art.
Varda describes how she felt helpless in the face of her husband, Jacques Demy's illness. Cinema, as always, was her most powerful tool, immortalizing him even as his life was slowly leached away. She describes how she intended to make a biographical film of his life, which was near-completion at the time of his death. She shows intense close ups of his withering face and gray hair taken with her digital camera as she attempts to record every detail.
I find documentary films difficult to write about, but I find Agnes Varda especially hard to write about. Varda's films are an expression of deep feeling. Describing her films is like describing a feeling of the kind that is nestled somewhere deep in your gut, where that sensation exists that is at once pleasurable and painful, when you meet the eyes of someone that you love. I get the idea that she lives incredibly passionately, because this passion makes its way into every frame, giving us a chance to experience the world through her eyes for an hour or so. Doing so ignites the creative impulses in your bloodstream in a delightful way.
Once of the things I love about a good artistic experience is the way it locks you into the artist's perspective, momentarily. Women on the Verge leaves you with silly noirish urges to paint your lips bright red and go to a place with loud music to sabotage your love life. Agnes' film encourages you to put on your most comfortable clothes, forget yourself and just examine everything--the way grains of sand fit together, the way a photograph dulls in the outdoors. These impulses are obviously incredibly subjective, but you know what I mean. You've experienced it too.