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Director Agnès Varda in THE BEACHES OF AGNÈS (Photo: Cinema Guild)

Written, Produced & Directed by
Agnès Varda
Released by Cinema Guild
French with English subtitles
France. 109 min. Not Rated

Self-involved videomakers and web exhibitionists confuse the narcissism of constantly filming their lives with the revelation of a self-portrait. Agnès Varda, the doyenne of the French New Wave, trumps them all by brilliantly reinventing the autobiography with The Beaches of Agnès, a multi-media collage that eschews a standard biographical format, even as she incidentally provides facts.

Acknowledging the fragility of memory in her 80th year, she revisits her homesfirst her birthplace, Brussels; then, having fled war, the south of Vichy France; afterwards, postwar Paris and the world; then to the Los Angeles of surfers and Black Panthers; and back to France for family and widowhood. On each of her favorite beaches, she interacts with photographs, three-dimensional collages, home movies, and film/video installations, all associated with periods in her life.

In her documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), Varda mused “I glean images” and here she illustrates her methodology. She (literally) parades clips from her work to show how she drew on her life experiences and locales for her art, and reunites with those who influenced or helped her or even participated as extras. Unlike so many biographical clip joints, this is a delightful way to present her still-fresh oeuvre either as a retrospective or an introduction for viewers not familiar with such lively films as her Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962).

Varda is constantly on the screen with her distinctive, variously dyed bowl bob (even sometimes called a beach cut). She announces in the beginning, “I’m playing the role of an old lady,” but she is even more interested in listening to people than talking about herself. Her irresistible joie de vivre brings together an enthusiastic motley crew of friendslike Jane Birkinneighbors, children, and circus folk to playfully reenact and reinterpret episodes and inspirations in her life.

Her very unordinary life seized the zeitgeist of significant cultural movements from Europe to America, and the people who dropped by her home included the likes of Alexander Calder, Jean Luc Godard, and Chris Marker (seen here disguised, of course, as a cartoon cat). She roped young friends into her films, capturing the acting debuts of Philippe Noiret and Gérard Depardieu (he also babysat for her daughter).

The emotional centerpiece of the film is her shared life of activism, children, and art with the late Jacques Demy as her great love (and she is fairly revelatory about their long marriage). She is a romantic as well as a proud mother and grandmother, but this is very much the story of a feminist artist who was no mere appendage or muse to a man. Like Joan Didion, she works through her great grief with her art. The Beaches of Agnès is her glorious and generous 80th birthday present to filmgoers, and we can all celebrate with her. Nora Lee Mandel
July 1,  2009



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