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The Beaches of Agnes

Agnès Varda's Moving And Inventive Autobiography

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The Beaches of Agnes

Agnès Varda with her family in "The Beaches of Agnes."

Cinema Guild
Eighty-year-old filmmaker Agnès Varda takes a long look back at her life by revisiting her favorite beaches in the moving The Beaches of Agnès. Wind-swept beaches are, of course, marvelously cinematic, and from the opening sequence, where we first encounter Varda and her crew setting up a complicated series of mirrors crisscrossing the sand, it's clear that this personal narrative will be something special.
Varda began her long and accomplished career as a photographer and her artist's eye is clearly at work in every frame of the film. Throughout The Beaches of Agnès, Varda recreates memories and fantasies from her youth -- the kind of reenactment that can be reprehensibly cheesy when done poorly. Not here.

When Varda states that in one difficult period of her life, she felt as if she was in the "belly of a whale," the camera flashes to the filmmaker inside a gorgeous tent fabricated in the shape of a whale. When Varda says that her teenage years had the feeling of a circus, we are treated to the images of trapeze artists swinging above the sand. In another instance, Varda refers to having to park in Paris garage so small it would take her fifteen tries before she could get in. We are treated to the comical image of Varda in a silver cardboard cut-out car, painstakingly going back and forth. In yet another sequence, avant-garde filmmaker Chris Marker interviews Varda about her often surprising choices in life. Marker, however, declined to appear on camera. Instead, he is rendered as a cartoon Cheshire cat.

From the Belgian beach of her youth, Varga's autobiographical film goes on to Sète, a seaside resort town in Southern France, Venice Beach in Los Angeles (where she first met Jim Morrison), Noirmourtier Island, and, naturally, Paris. To illustrate her time in the City of Lights -- decidedly not a beach town -- Varda goes through the artful length of importing sand onto a Parisian street. She creates a comical office outside, with staff working at desks, sending faxes, answering the phones - all on an artificial beach.

What Varda recounts amounts to a remarkable life. She returns to her childhood home and gets distracted by the current owners' elaborate model train collection. She talks about her marriage to filmmaker Jaques Demy, introduces us to her two grown children, Rosalie and Mathieu, and also her children's children. With these visits to her past, Varda also takes the audience back to the making of many of the films in her illustrious career, including her first major hit Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), Lions Love (1969), an experimental, sexually implicit film shot during her time in Los Angeles, and also The Universe of Jacques Demy (1995), Varda's film about her husband's childhood.

The Beach of Agnès is a vibrant film, showcasing the talent of an artist still very much at the height of her creative powers. Varda's luminous depiction of a life lived well is entertaining, informative, and finally, inspirational. In addition to making me want to watch and rewatch her films, Varda's life story left me wanting to make art -- and equally important -- get back to the beach.

The Beaches of Agnes (2009)

Director: Agnès Varda
Country: France
Runtime: 110
Distributor: Cinema Guild
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