Agnès Varda may not be a household name in America, though many filmgoers know her for such international hits as Vagabond, Cléo From 5 to 7 and One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. After the broadcast of The Beaches of Agnès on PBS, the 81-year-old Varda’s mischievous and touching autobiography as refracted through her movies, she may find herself a late-blooming American celebrity. That would be a strange turn of events for a woman usually associated with the legendary French Nouvelle Vague (“New Wave”) of filmmaking, comprising the work of such art-house luminaries as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais and her late husband, Jacques Demy. But then, as Varda tells it, nothing could be stranger than finding herself, in The Beaches of Agnès, playing “a little old lady, pleasantly plump.”
Winner of numerous awards, including the French César for Best Documentary, The Beaches of Agnès is a many-mirrored take on a life lived making movies. For Varda, whose movies and art installations freely mix documentary realism and social commentary with an experimental style, memory survives through film. And so, in The Beaches of Agnès, she revisits her Belgian youth, adolescence in occupied Paris, early photographic work, marriage to director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and social activism by telling the story of the making of each of her films. Along the way, she employs all the magic of cinema to juxtapose the real and the imagined, memory and the present and pain and joy, achieving an intriguing blend of playfulness and seriousness, of high and low laughs.
For one thing, her friend, the acclaimed and elusive master of poetic cinema Chris Marker (The Pier, Without Sun), keeps showing up as an animated orange cat providing pithy comments in a digitally altered voice. For another, Varda uses her photos and film clips, often shown in the frame of present day re-enactments — or vice versa — to give a dizzying sense of the filmmaker’s power to mold vision. This characteristic double-mirroring of art and life turns The Beaches of Agnès into a simultaneously funny and elegiac exploration of the relationship between memory and art. Varda connects the film’s title to the real beaches that have figured prominently in her life, but the other shoe drops when a tight shot of Varda working on a beach with her production staff in bathing suits widens to show that they are actually on a Paris street in front of her home, standing on a pile of sand Varda had trucked in.
Appearing both as they were and as they are today are members of her family, son Mathieu Demy, an actor, and daughter Rosalie Varda-Demy, an actress and costume designer, and the ordinary people who crossed her path and entered her films, such as the local fishermen from her first film, La Pointe Courte (1955). Varda also brings into the frame her many friends and collaborators, including directors Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard; French actors Gérard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve, Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret (who starred in La Pointe Courte); British actress Jane Birkin; and American icons Harrison Ford, Robert De Niro and the late Jim Morrison.
Varda’s visits to the locales of her past, and to the people who inhabited them, whether they have survived or not, create a patina of wistfulness that never gives way to sentimentality. Much of her joy and pain is wrapped up in memories of her marriage to Demy and of his death from AIDS (which Varda confirms for the first time in this film) in 1990. Most touchingly, Varda recalls her making of the documentary “Jacquot de Nantes,” an account of Demy’s childhood and lifelong love of theater and cinema — a film he wanted to make but could not. This sequence offers the most concrete and layered expression of Varda’s (and Demy’s) conflation of love, memory and cinema in the face of death.
Many have identified Varda with the French New Wave of Godard et al. She certainly worked and associated with the members of that group, came of filmmaking age with them and, as the only female director among them, attracted a good deal of attention from them and from the press. Her film La Pointe Courte, a commercial flop, was even retrospectively named a precursor of the New Wave — further testament to the restless, experimental approach to filmmaking Varda shared with the Nouvelle Vague. But The Beaches of Agnès reveals an artist whose originality has taken her well beyond any label and into an idiosyncratic realm where love and loss, realism and fantasy, the impulse to document life and the impulse to re-imagine it freely contend with each other and embrace.
In short, you don’t need to know anything about Varda or the French New Wave to enjoy this delightfully unconventional, visually beautiful, whimsical and touching memoir of a creative life well-lived and well-filmed.
“I wanted to be like a bird,” Varda recently told A.O. Scott in an interview in The New York Times. “I wanted to be free in my memory, to go from one part to another and see what I would find.” The Beaches of Agnès is a production of Cine-Tamaris.