On the occasion of her 80th birthday, Agnès Varda, the woman sometimes referred to as the “grandmother of the French New Wave,” decided to turn the camera back on herself. The Beaches of Agnès was the result: sprawling, spry, and ever curious, like the filmmaker herself, it revisits a life that, for over 50 years, has been inextricably linked to the cinema that shaped it. In addition to making groundbreaking films like Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961) and Vagabond (1985), Varda has also sustained an impressive career as a photographer and more recently as an installation artist. In 1962 she married the filmmaker Jacques Demy, with whom she stayed until his death in 1990. I met with Varda at the Santa Monica home of Patricia Knop and Zalman King, just steps away from one of her beloved beaches, where she observed matter-of-factly, and with a touch of merry nonchalance, “I was lucky enough in my life to be at the right time in many places.” Here among the sun-dappled collection of 19th-century carousel animals and thick-bodied angels, this grand dame of cinema with the impish grin looked perfectly at ease, equally at home as both jester and queen.
The Beaches of Agnès, appropriately, occasions retrospectives. Los Angeles’s American Cinematheque has been screening a number of Varda’s films in anticipation of the Beaches release, from Jacquot (1990), a moving reconstruction of Demy’s childhood made in the late stages of his illness, to the elegantly observed essay film The Gleaners and I (2000). The program also included several films that Varda made during her various residencies in California, including the “hippie love” film Lions Love (and Lies) (1969), starring Warhol superstar Viva, the documentary Mur Murs (1980), a kind of Gleaners precursor in search of the unnamed creators of Los Angeles’s street murals, and the rare gem Uncle Janco (1965), a short and colorful portrait of Varda’s long-lost relative drifting in the bays of Sausalito. In Beaches, Varda is chastised by Chris Marker (disguised as his trademark cartoon cat, Guillaume-en-Egypte) for having spent the summer of 1968 not on the streets of Paris but in Hollywood. To me she explained: “France was dull, really, and when we came here it was, oh my God, like a shower of freedom, counterculture, the way people would dress, would speak, would have all these love-ins, all these happenings, all these meetings.” Varda’s bright enthusiasm for California was rivaled only by the audience at the Aero Theater, which gave her a standing ovation before the first screening of the series had even begun. Slightly embarrassed, she urged everyone to sit down. “Maybe after,” she quipped.