Review: 'The Beaches of Agnès'

French new wave legend Agnès Varda turns the camera on herself in this whimsical and touching portrait.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The Beaches of Agnès's director, Agnes Varda.
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The film director Agnès Varda, whose new documentary is called "The Beaches of Agnès," has been called the "grandmother of the French new wave," but she could just as easily be called its godmother, not to mention its big sister, dutiful wife, and gossipy aunt.

As a public personality in the film community for more than 50 years, Varda has made a point, especially in her documentaries, of blending her personal life into her filmic one. She is, in short, an indispensable – though somewhat anomalous – figure in postwar film history.

Although she has made a number of powerful dramatic films, including "Vag­a­bond" (1985), starring Sandrine Bonnaire as a hard-bitten drifter, her documentaries, I think, show her off to fullest advantage. "The Gleaners and I" (2000) is her masterpiece, a one-of-a-kind movie about ragtag foragers and itinerant hoarders, among whom she counts herself a proud member.

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"The Beaches of Agnès" is not as luminescent as that film, but it shares its handmade, improvisatorial spirit. The big difference between the two documentaries is that Varda wasn't on-screen much in "The Gleaners and I," but she's all over the place in "Beaches," which is both good and not so good.

Sometimes a filmmaker's presence in a "personal" movie is strongest when, paradoxically, he or she is on-screen sparingly. (The creative personality of an artist is invariably more complex than the flesh-and-blood personality.) Varda obviously disagrees. She begins "Beaches" by announcing, "I'm playing the role of a little old lady telling her life story," and then adds, "If you open people, you'll find landscapes. If you open me, you'll find beaches."

Varda was born in Belgium, far from beaches, but as a child she would travel to the seaside every Easter and summer, and these excursions are the catalyst for her cinematic meditations.

She recalls the time her family decamped during World War II to the coastal village of Sète, France, as a period of fun in the sun. As she often does throughout "Beaches," Varda here re-creates scenes from her childhood, complete with giggling girls in gingham frocks, and the effect of these reenactments is coy and jarring. It's enough that Varda, looking back on her life, walks us through these places.

Sète was the location for her first feature, "La Pointe Courte" (1954), from which we see clips, and she interviews villagers who remember her from that time. She sets up a haunting, then-and-now shimmer. She moves on to Paris; Avignon, France; Venice, Italy; California; Havana; China; and on and on – wherever she took up residence in her peripatetic life. Varda began as a still photographer, and "Beaches" swarms with photo artifacts and home movies of her childhood, her family, colleagues, courtyards, seascapes, murals, and, most of all, her beloved husband, Jacques Demy, the great director ("The Umbrellas of Cherbourg") about whom she made the semidocumentary "Jacquot de Nantes" when he was dying.

As the film moseys along, the beaches in "Beaches" become more and more metaphorical. In one forgivably silly moment, Varda dumps six truckloads of sand onto the middle of the Rue Daguerre in Paris. She dumps so much of her ragamuffin life on us that after a while, the beaches motif – metaphorical and actual – gets lost entirely.

I didn't mind. "Beaches" would have been insufferable if it were simply the hodgepodge of a preening narcissist, but Varda is a marvelous contradiction. She's a humble narcissist. She's so self-deprecating that the value of her achievement will be lost on people who find her hippie granny persona a turnoff. Ultimately, her movie is about how her life, anybody's life, is created out of oddments that never quite cohere, and don't need to. The sheer sensuousness of all these bric-a-brac memories is sustaining.

At the end of "Beaches," Varda reveals her finest and funniest self-homage: an enclosure whose walls and ceiling are made up entirely of strips of 35mm film from her critically panned 1966 movie "Les Créatures." Waste not, want not. Grade: B+

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