Click here for











































































by Harlan Kennedy


An extra layer of visual ravishment was laid on at the Venice Film Festival in 2008. As if a sparkling lagoon wasn’t enough, and skies as opalescent as Tiepolo, and gilded lions guarding every palace, we had from two directors a pair of movies with a special enchantment.

Anyone for misty water-coloured memories? Of the “way we were”…..?

Agnes Varda’s LES PLAGES D’AGNES and Ross McElwee’s IN PARAGUAY bear witness to a new age of blithe-access remembrance on screen. Audiovisual diary-keeping is open to almost everyone today, as easy as falling off a blog. So we don’t expect filmmakers  to stay away from the memoir biz. What we do expect is they will bring extra wit, depth, authority and richness of articulation.

And they do. McElwee has been our tour guide before through backwaters of his life, in SHERMAN’S MARCH and BRIGHT LEAVES. He does offhand curiosity better than anyone in the western world, canoeing down any tributary that leads to an insight into Americana, from Civil War history in SHERMAN to the tobacco industry in LEAVES. IN PARAGUAY is set for once outside the United States. Even so it is another serving of Americana, subtly disguised as the misadventures of an ordinary family (McElwee’s) in a foreign land, where they have flown for the purpose of adopting a baby girl.

The process is supposed to take a few days. It takes a few weeks – four, five, six, seven. The wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly, even Kafkaesquely, milling to flour-dust the patience of Ross, his wife and his 5-year-old son Adrian, who was never keen on the trip’s objective anyway. “Do you like having a baby sister?” asks dad, allowed to dandle the new tot before she has fully shed her red tape. “No, not really,” answers Adrian, a deadpan charmer of heedless candor, who goes on to purloin every scene he is in.

The bewitchment, or a good one, is that it has no predetermined ending. It is open-plan narrative art. We have no idea, nor does the director, how the story will end, or even if it will end.

Will the family leave Paraguay? Are they falling in love with their ‘land of adoption’? There is much macabre exoticism here: the giant frogs, the tail-less lizards, the buildings that moulder with a cruel history. (McElwee, inundated with time, researches that history, from the local palace containing an old torture chamber to the tales of child soldiers with fake moustaches who fought in Paraguay’s wars with neighbor countries). There is much Third World charm too: an uproarious shot of telephone cable festooned around a pole like uncontrollable jungle vine. McElwee’s comment: “Maybe this is why things are moving so slowly.”

By the time the family has been to Brazil’s nearby Iguacu Falls and back – every tourist’s must-see – they seem so fully baptized in this Latin locality we suspect the baby girl will adopt them, sealing off McElwee and his clan forever from their inspirational supply line in the US. Or perhaps the reverse adoption would merely prove that an artist is an artist wherever he is, and wherever he sets up his desk, easel or camera tripod.      

Even more than Ross McElwee, Agnes Varda in LES PLAGES D’AGNES knows she is creating an artifact from reality – a story from storylessness. But in the best memoirs and self-portraits the storylessness, after a fashion, is the story. A portrait of oneself says: “Nothing is really ‘happening’ here” (though of course a hundred things are, quietly, subterraneanly). “The only overt drama, if you need to find one, is the transmigration of me from a mundane living dimension into a pictorial or iconic one.”

Just so here, as the 80-year-old veteran of the French New Wave launches her remembrances. “I’m playing the role of a plump little old lady,” she overvoices, “telling her life story.” This little old lady might have been played by Lila Kedrova when alive: a bustling plump-waisted gamine with fallen face-lines but eyes as large as stars and the moue of a Toulouse Lautrec café waif. 

The mirrors casually strewn on the opening scene’s beach are the film’s introductory burst of symbolism. As Varda and her pals and film crew drift in and out of reflections, they seem caught in a kaleidoscopic dimension between reality and fiction.

Varda tells of her childhood in the Mediterranean fishing town of Sete (a wartime free zone in the 40s), of fame’s bizarre ambushing of her humble social circle – a neighbour married the great actor-manager Jean Vilar (the Olivier of France) – and then of her own elevation to celebrity. The French New Wave arrived in time to sweep her off their feet, a tidal apotheosis. Soon, with the likes of Godard and Truffaut, she was not drowning but happily waving. Making films, she married into the business, taking Jacques Demy (LOLA, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG) for husband.

The real Varda has now bobbed in these seas so long it is no wonder she depicts herself, in some scenes, oaring a rowboat. She rows backwards, just as in dry-land scenes she walks backwards: more symbolism. Regressing in time, she regresses in motion. Varda is old enough and wise enough to be able to play the fool. In an excerpt from her surrealist play PATATOPIA she is seen dressed as a walking potato while her chum Chris Marker (the august director of LA JETEE) plays a cat in a cardboard feline costume.

Varda once, she recalls with bits of old footage, went to Los Angeles. She went to live there and shoot a film, LION’S LOVE. She screen-tested a young unknown actor called Harrison Ford. Unimpressed she advised him to stick to carpentry, his other job.

Who knows? Perhaps that roused the lion in Ford and decided him to become a superstar. In Varda-land everything, Voltaireanly, turns out for the best in the best of all possible worlds. If LES PLAGES D’AGNES has a fault it is its author’s tendency to project her optimistic vision – or her robust rainbow-filtering of reality – on the rest of the world. Even the catastrophes are colourful, like her father’s death in a gambling casino, cut short by divine mercy during a losing streak.

It is impossible, even so, to dislike this film. Those multiple mirrors, ricocheting their reflections on a Normandy beach, become in time a zodiac of happenstance and halcyon memories. A young Philippe Noiret and a shockingly young Gerard Depardieu – a tall Adonis beatnik with Niagara hair – are among the characters who appear for an eyeblink, winking and twinkling among the turning bodies of celestial remembrance and then-unsuspected galactic promise.

LES PLAGES D’AGNES is a different film from IN PARAGUAY, more fantastical, more eclectic, more upbeat, more bricoleur. At the same time, the two movies have a kinship, even a twinship. They are two memory gigs in love with the continuous present that is cinema. They are two movies that leave themselves on the doorstep like time capsules, their casings sealed with a loving click, their cargoes designed to lurk on through history, waiting to be unpacked and reappraised by each successive generation.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved