The Beaches of Agnès played at the Walker this spring during Women With Vision, and opens today at the Edina Cinema for one week only! Do not miss it! This review was originally published on In Review Online.
Agnès Varda takes center stage in her self-proclaimed last film as “a little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative, telling her life story.” If this opening statement doesn’t reveal the humble ego of one of the most important Left Bank filmmakers, then the purely allegorical introduction—mirrors precariously set up on the beach as objective eyes to the world—reiterates Varda’s rare self-effacing approach to filmmaking and the world.
Although more closely aligned with the Left Bank movement, Varda is often cited as directing the first French New Wave film. Before the swaggers and the tit-for-tat philosophical disputes ever surfaced in the nouvelle vague, Agnès Varda made her first film, La Pointe Courte (1956), exploring many of the techniques and themes later exploited by the French New Wave. Varda followed her own creative path resulting in a lower historical profile than her more famous friends and colleagues—Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, to name a few.
Masquerading as an autobiography, The Beaches of Agnès is really an homage to her creative inspirations and all the people who have touched her life. Varda starts with her childhood in Belgium and guides us through her life using archive photos and footage, interviews, reenactments, staged vignettes, and Varda herself revisiting the landscapes of her past. The narrative, as it is, pleasantly drifts from one subject to the next, weaving chronologically through her personal and professional life.
If Varda's films are experimental, so is her life: continually exploring and expanding her creative impulses. Sometimes that means dressing up as a potato during a photo exhibition, and sometimes that means running an electrical cord from your house through the neighborhood so you can shoot your film in a nearby café. In the context of The Beaches of Agnès, it means bringing dreams and memories to life. Cleverly staged moments have an edge of surrealism, such as the acrobatic troupe on the beach simply to indulge a youthful dream. Likewise, to visually demonstrate how she would maneuver her first car back and forth (a minimum of 13 times) to make the tight turn down her alley, she sits behind a cardboard cutout of a car on a dolly pushing herself back and forth with her feet. You won’t find anything that is so delightfully representative yet so devoid of irony.
The thing that makes The Beaches of Agnès so remarkable is Varda’s playful openness and unapologetic tenderness. The film is just as much about life as it is the absence of life, as Varda reminisces about friends who have passed away, especially Jacques Demy. Varda married Demy in 1962 and they shared a loving bond in life and creativity until Demy’s death in 1990. The open sentimentality as she talks about Demy and his death, her kids, her friends and even her work is incredibly moving. The kind of candor that allows Varda to dance in front of colorful beach accoutrements with equal grace as she talks about her innermost feelings is completely astounding.
After seeing The Beaches of Agnès there is no question where the character of Mona in Vagabond comes from. A rebel and free spirit, from past to present, Agnès Varda’s vigor for life is only matched by her sense of humor and curiosity. The film closes with Varda’s 80th birthday, replete with 80 brooms she received as gifts (“broom” in French slang means “year.”) Instead of dwelling on her age, she gleefully counts all the brooms, including four toilet brushes and one sent via e-mail from Chris Marker. Agnès Varda exudes whimsy even as she enters the twilight years of her life, and her film is that much more enjoyable for it.