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by Mark Jenkins,
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SEPT. 11, 2009

Working Women

Agnès Varda's The Beaches of Agnès shows how to assemble flotsam into a full life. The September Issue reveals the genius of Vogue — and it's not Anna Wintour.

By Mark Jenkins

Also opening in D.C. this week, a film I reviewed for NPR: THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX.

AS THE ONLY FEMALE MEMBER of the boys club known as the nouvelle vague, Agnès Varda naturally made films that focus on the lives of women — from 1954's La Pointe-Courte (released several years before Godard or Truffaut's first feature) and 1961's Cléo From 5 to 7 to 1976's One Sings, the Other Doesn't and 1985's Vagabond. Since the last of those movies, Varda has specialized in first-person documentaries, initially about her late husband Jacques (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) Demy and his work and, more recently, herself. That doesn't mean that her new film, the enchanting The Beaches of Agn&egrace;s, is self-absorbed. The 81-year-old Varda may not be Everywoman, but she does encompass multitudes: artist, filmmaker, widow, grandmother, and little girl who used to love the beach.

Born Arlette Varda to a Greek father and French mother in 1928, the filmmaker lived her first years in Belgium, whose seaside is what she remembers most fondly. Her family left shortly before the Germans arrived, fleeing to the south of France. Life there was both provincial and epochal, heightened by the war. (When her Girl Scout troop used to go camping near the Swiss Alps, Varda later learned, one of the reasons was to smuggle Jewish girls across the border.) Her new hometown of Sète, which staged aquatic jousting contests in the harbor, became the setting for the naturalistic La Pointe-Courte. (It was edited by the then-unknown Alain Resnais, whose films have dealt with memory in a different way than Varda's.)

Varda began her career as a photographer, back when cinema was heavy industry. Now movies can be made with digital mini-cams, and Varda seems to carry one just about everywhere, collecting images the way some people scavenge food. (She made this analogy explicit in 2000's The Gleaners and I.) She still has a taste for elaborately art-directed sequences, however. For this film, she stages several symbolic vignettes, including a self-portrait with mirrors on the beach. She also imports sand to Paris so she can create a beach office outside her production company's headquarters (on the Rue Daguerre, no less).

Varda's complicated sensibility — love of the sea, nostalgia for her life and Demy, anger at the plight of women worldwide, a taste for whimsy, symbolic gestures and assembled detritus — has led to a second career as an installation artist. So the film's autobiographical musings are interrupted by scenes in which Varda offers flowers to huge enlargements of photographs she made long ago, of actors who are long dead; or sits amid rolls of film from 1966's Les Créatures, one of her least-loved features; or dresses as a potato. This stuff looks rather precious, but then so does much installation art. Although she's an original, Varda is also a quick study, capable of learning how to be a contemporary artist just as swiftly as she learned to be an avant-garde filmmaker.

The eccentric feminist grandma, her mushroom-like bowlcut dyed red with a crown of white, poses with her children and their children (some of them previously seen in her movies). But Beaches spends more time with the director's friends, including actress Jane Birkin and filmmaker Chris Marker. (The latter, who prefers not to appear on camera, is represented by Guillaume-en-Egypte, an eye-rolling orange cartoon cat with Marker's electronically altered voice.) And Varda's old movie buddies aren't all from the Left Bank. She and Demy spent a few years in L.A. — they lived near the beach, of course — as hippie bliss was turning to leftist rage. Varda enlists some unexpected acquaintances from those days, including squishy-soft-porn director Zalman King and Harrison Ford (who was nixed from Demy's 1968 Model Shop by producers who thought he lacked star quality).

Harrison Ford? Varda's memoir is full of such surprises, and they're not always picturesque footnotes. This is the first time Varda has revealed that her husband died of AIDS complications, something he didn't want mentioned at the time. (She still isn't ready to tell that whole story.) There are also clips from the director's own films, including ones like Vagabond, whose grim intensity is not evident in its maker. Varda can be angry, as well as sad, although her love for Demy seems to trump her sorrow at his loss. But most of the time she appears blithe, secure in her accomplishments and freed by lack of expectations. When you take such pleasure in serendipitous discoveries, The Beaches of Agn&egrace;s explains, life never runs out of joy.

THE BEACHES OF AGNÈS — 2008, 109 min; at Landmark E Street.

SOMETIMES A FILM REGISTERS in an unexpectedly personal way. I don't read Vogue — no surprise there — and have never cared about the cult of Anna Wintour, the magazine's editor. She wasn't even all that interesting when being broadly impersonated by Meryl Streep in the cutely dishonest The Devil Wears Prada. But The September Issue, R.J. Cutler's documentary about assembling the biggest Vogue of 1997, transfixed me.

For nine months, Cutler and a small crew followed blonde-bobbed Pope Anna (that's "Ah-na") around New York and Paris as she cast a withering eye on, well, almost everything. She's coolly unenthusiastic about the clothes she sees, especially if they're black, and mostly dismissive of the photo spreads devised to showcase them. She really is an editor — her specialty is deciding what to omit. The problem is that sometimes she disapproves so much that pages will be blank, so additions, reshoots, or whole new features are required, and in a hurry.

The person who rises to the occasion is Grace Coddington, Vogue's creative director and the film's heroine. As depicted by Cutler — who, admittedly, doesn't seem all that skeptical — Coddington is "a genius." (Even Wintour, who rarely deigns to speak to Coddington directly, says so.) The creative director improvises with speed and flair, and has the instincts of a true artist. At one point, she inserts a shot of the documentary's cameraman, Bob Richman, into a jumping-themed fashion spread, and the results could hardly be better.

When Wintour sees the photos, she approves — but commands that Richman's potbelly be retouched to make him more closely resemble Vogue's ideal (and her own starved-to-perfection look). Coddington, a former model who has style without being painfully chic, countermands the order. She's right to do so; the photo of Richman adds both wit and humanity to the airlessly idealized spread. (Think of him as the scruffy cocker spaniel nuzzling the model in the flawless evening gown.)

Amusingly, Wintour and Coddington's relationship transplants ancient British rivalries to midtown Manhattan. Wintour, who seems a little sheepish that her siblings all have more serious-minded careers, is stereotypically "English," while Coddington is from working-class north Wales. ("English" is actually a language rather than a nationality — but try telling that to the English.) Where Coddington is a doer, Wintour is a don't-er. When the deadline looms, there's no question which is the more important role.

Coddington doesn't do celebrities, so she can watch with detached amusement when the issue's cover spread, starring starlet Sienna Miller and Rome's major tourist attractions, doesn't meet Wintour's expectations. Miller's hair just isn't right. And the imperious photographer didn't like the images he made at some required locations, so he simply deleted them.

As a former art director, my blood ran cold — and then I laughed. I faced those kind of problems all the time, but not with artists or photographers who were being paid thousands of dollar a day. And in the olden days — the 1980s and '90s — it was possible to find other shots on the contact sheet. Now a photog can simply erase images he didn't like, and nothing can be done. Not even if you're the fearsome Anna Wintour. (So much for technology making life easier.)

I talked briefly to Cutler, a TV veteran who co-produced The War Room, when he was in town in June to showcase the film at Silverdocs. He argued that his film captures something of Wintour's soul, but the icy editrix never forgets the presence of the camera — even when she's at home with her college-age daughter, who plans a career in law rather than fashion. When Wintour admits she sometimes gets angry, she say so in an utterly dispassionate tone. Her underlings clearly fear her, but the film doesn't include a second of her being scary.

Cutler also disclosed that Coddington ducked the camera at first, but gradually became more comfortable with it. By the time the presses roll on the 840-page issue, she's become the central character, unable to hide her glee that her spreads fill the issue, while other people's projects were slashed to the bone or disappeared altogether. In the end, the September 2007 issue of Vogue is hers. And so is The September Issue.

THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE — 2008, 88 min; at Landmark Bethesda Row.