Masterful Film Memoirs: 'My Winnipeg,' 'The Beaches of Agnès' and 'L'Aimée'
Sunday, May 24, 2009
The written memoir is a well-debased form these days, dominated by an endless production of confessional books detailing the pain and suffering of addiction or incest or bulimia or child abuse. The general tone has become familiar, flat, dry and direct, whacked to the literary nubbins with a great Strunk and White cleaver. One awful thing follows another, and then a few chapters before the end there is some tripe about healing and redemption. Even the political memoir has been sorted into two reliably dull categories: tracts that position the candidate for the next big election, and career retrospectives that either settle too many old scores or haven't the courage to settle any at all.
The National Gallery of Art's brief but fantastically rich three-film series "The Film Memoir," which begins this afternoon, uses the term "memoir" in a very different way. This is the avant-garde of old-fashioned memoir, a return to the age-old effort to wrestle with memory and death and the lessons of life, to fight through the night with these terrible angels until something meaningful, coherent, maybe even permanent, emerges.
Two of the three films -- "L'Aimée" by Arnaud Desplechin and "The Beaches of Agnès" by the great New Wave master Agnès Varda -- are Washington premieres, and the third, Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg," is a welcome return of a film that deserved more attention and love when it was first seen here last summer. But all three films deserve to be seen together, not because they have much in common but because they demonstrate an astonishing range of creativity. It has not all been done and said before in cinema, as "The Film Memoir" amply demonstrates.
Not one of these films has the dusty, distant tone of retrospection; not one begins like "Out of Africa," with Meryl Streep's quavery voice intoning, "I had a farm in Africa . . . ." Maddin's film is about a place as much as about himself, and Desplechin's is based on a long conversation with his father about Arnaud's grandmother, a woman who died too young for either of them to know directly. Varda's "The Beaches of Agnès" is indeed about Agnès Varda, but Varda's life is so long and rich, and intersects with so many famous people -- Alexander Calder, Jim Morrison, Harrison Ford -- and so many critical social upheavals, that it is as much a film about the 20th century as it is a biographical exercise.
Perhaps they shouldn't even be lumped together as memoirs. Maddin called "My Winnipeg" a "docu-fantasia," though even this hybrid term is inadequate to capture the manic melding of campy reenactments, historical footage, animation and ranting narration. It is supposedly a farewell to Maddin's city of Winnipeg, an effort to film his way out of a claustrophobic place that has trapped him in its dead ends and empty streets. But it's never clear where memory ends and fantasia begins. Nor can you be very sure of the truth of anything asserted about the city of Winnipeg.
But as "L'Aimée," a shorter, darker, more haunted film, demonstrates, memoir is as much about how we remember as it is about the stuff we remember. It begins as Desplechin's father prepares to sell his house, and it is a visual poem written to the material stuff of memory that is packed into the old home. As he and his father sort through old photographs, letters and diaries, they struggle to piece together the chronology of a woman, Therese, who nursed tuberculosis patients before she herself succumbed to the disease. She died when Desplechin's father was still too young to remember her, but somehow memory has trickled through time and he retains a powerful, rich and primitive memory of this beautiful, sad, distant woman.
As they talk, the house is already being emptied. An attic of books is sorted out, made ready for the secondhand dealers. Children who would have known Therese as their great-grandmother play among the old things of the house, and as Therese's story becomes more clear and unbearably sad, the physical presence of the house and its contents become as palpable as the ache we all feel upon leaving something or someone beloved -- the literal translation of "aimée" -- for what we know must be the last time.
And yet, something strange happens, or rather doesn't happen. The film doesn't become oppressive; the story doesn't break your heart. It closes in on a truth about how we transfer love, need and reliance from one person to another, over time and across generations. People are not interchangeable, but love is not limited in supply, either.
It recalls the death of the narrator's grandmother in one of the most moving scenes in Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," the great colossus of memoir against which all serious memoir must be measured: "Who knows whether, without my grandmother's even being conscious of them, countless happy and tender memories compressed by suffering were not escaping from her now, like those lighter gases . . . "
If Maddin's film strains against the chains of memory, manic and wild, moving in all directions at once, Desplechin's is almost static. But they are both steeped in the world of film, the history and sophistication of the genera. Maddin plays with the old silent-film style, and Desplechin uses footage of Lillian Gish to imagine the woman whose absence is so profoundly constructed through photographs and old documents. These gestures might seem like postmodern jokiness, an insider's self-referentiality. But you can't make a film memoir without grappling with the power of film to supplant and distort memory.
Even more than photographs, and vastly more than the written memory of the past, film makes people seem alive again and plays with the illusion of immortality. Its power to trap the past in a seemingly vital but hollow form must be terrifying to anyone who lives his or her life in the celluloid wonderland.
Varda, whose "The Beaches of Agnès" is a work of indisputable genius, is not scared. She accepts and celebrates the eerie power of film to overwhelm mere memory. We see her, now in her 80s, on a beach, setting up mirrors that will catch reflections of the beach that she says has been so important to her over her long and productive life.
The so-called "grandmother of the New Wave," director of classics such as "Cleo from 5 to 7," is now a little old lady, with a great shock of badly dyed hair and an impish smile. She is determined to tell her story with the same play of angles and directions created by the mirrors scattered on the sand.
It is allusive, and digressive, and sometimes wildly funny. Chris Marker, another filmmaker and a friend of Varda, interviews her, but for some reason refuses to be seen on camera. Varda replaces him with the cartoon figure of a cat.
Despite its twists and turns, its visual allusions and games, its relentless refusal to go anywhere directly, Varda's life emerges. It is a very sly and fanciful tour, and while you may feel you are moving in circles and hopscotching around the world and through time, you keep finding the gold nuggets of her life.
No one lives to be 80 without forming an intimate acquaintance with death, and Varda's memories of her husband, Jacques Demy (the director of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"), who died of complications from AIDS in 1990, are some of the most moving moments of the film. But Varda is not broken by death. There is too much abundance in her, too much love of the world. She is who we all want to be when we grow old.
Direct comparison of these three very different films doesn't, perhaps, yield much data. Memoir is by its very nature the most personal and idiosyncratic form of storytelling. But if you had to put all three films in some kind of relationship, it might be one of perceived age of the narrator. Although Maddin was over 50 when he released "My Winnipeg," it feels like the work of a young man, someone still a little angry, still laughing at life and not yet under the shadow of mortality. "L'Aimée," made by a director a few years younger than Maddin, is a work of middle age, capturing that moment in life when the past -- fading as fast as our parents can die -- seems desperately important for perhaps the first time in life. Varda's dance with the music of time closes the circle, the obliviousness to death we enjoy as children has been replaced by an almost joyous acceptance of all things. She is forever young and what may be her last film may also be her greatest masterpiece.