Is the 81-year-old Agnes Varda a tireless self-promoter or self-eulogizer? After watching her lyrical, free-associative autobiography “The Beaches of Agnes” it might seem silly to even bother creating a distinction. In the past decade or so, this oft-named “grandmother of the French New Wave,” who has been for over fifty years creating a diverse, challenging (and admittedly inconsistent) body of work, from narrative cinema to documentary to photography and installation pieces, has more often than not turned the camera on herself. Thus the septuagenarian incarnation of Varda, in such personal works as “The Gleaners and I” (2000) and “Cinevardaphoto” (2004), was all about foregrounding her voice and vision — if you had been wondering what to look at in her previous decades’ films, here was the key (life’s marginalia, France’s outskirts, aging, the process and texture of seeing and bearing witness).
Now, as an octogenarian, she’s taken her project of introspection even further, making a feature-length video about her own life, her own art, her outlook on the world as she’s grown older, her relationships, childhood, memories. It’s the kind of film a less charitable critic might call indulgent; yet why shouldn’t a filmmaker write her own life story on the screen rather than the page? As with any autobiography, the author’s passions and blind spots are all there for us to see, and despite the expected amount of immodesty coursing through it, “The Beaches of Agnès” is a mostly enchanting troll down memory lane.
“I’m playing the role of a little old lady,” Varda addresses us right from the beginning in the wry, grandmotherly appeal to the audience that will provide the voice for the entire film. Though discursive in its approach to her past, constantly branching off to unexpected detours, Varda’s reminiscence is also explicit and direct—this is no time-juggling abstraction a la Chris Marker (who does make a guest appearance, albeit only in the image and voice of his eternal avatar, cartoon kitty Guillaume-en-Egypt, here adorably life-sized and preciously eye-rolling while asking Varda satirically canned interview questions like “Were you a film buff?” and “May ’68 in France, ring any bells”?; appreciative cinephiles will guffaw). Varda doesn’t want us to piece together the narrative of her life; she’s more than happy to hold our hands and take us with her on her journey into the past, which she often physically literalizes on screen by walking backwards, away from the camera, on windswept beaches set up with kliegs and mirrors.
The travels prove linear but digressive: Varda returns to her childhood (which, naturally, initiates memories of the Nazi occupation and hence her own short film about the French military rounding up Jewish children); visits the home of her youth in Brussels just as it’s about to be sold (where she meets and becomes fascinated by a toy train collector); and goes back to the Mediterranean coastal town of Sète where she spent summers — and where she shot her first feature, the 1954 New Wave precursor “La Pointe Courte.” As she continues to thread clips and anecdotes about her feature films throughout, from “Cleo from 5 to 7” to “Vagabond,” it becomes ever clearer that Varda is just further ensuring that she’s properly memorialized (who better to do it than her? she must assume). Her obsession with her own work and legacy is further proven when, flipping through a box of old movie cards at a flea market, Varda finds one for her own 1981 film “Documenteur” and pulls it out and buys it for safe keeping.
For all its whimsy (some forced, some elegant, all winning), “The Beaches of Agnes” will probably be most fondly remembered for its director’s candid remembrances of her late husband, that creator of timeless cinematic valentines Jacques Demy. Varda’s recollections of her spouse and best friend, who in 1990 died of AIDS, as she states here for the first time on camera, make all of Varda’s precious flashbacks more poignant. It seems fitting that her great true love story and our 1960s movie romances match up. It’s doubtful that any other living French New Wave master (Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol) would make such an unabashedly nostalgic trip to their cinematic pasts. I’m glad that Varda doesn’t consider herself above building such sand castles.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]