The new film by Agnes Varda is the memoir of an inventor, an essay by a prankster, and a documentary about a life in cinema. Altogether playful and seductive, while also at turns heartfelt and poignant, The Beaches of Agnes frames the remembrances of the famed director--the feminine voice of the French New Wave--in a series of mirrors. Varda recreates scenes from her life and from her films, intercut with actual home movies, photographs, and clips from those same films, sometimes side by side with the reenactments. The new stagings reflect the settings as they are now, with the past being taken over by the present that has replaced it. In the case of fallen comrades, Varda casts their children in their roles, including a fantastic scene that conjures her debut feature, La Pointe-courte. Varda takes unseen footage of test films she shot with friends and mounts it on a cart that was pushed through a narrow alleyway in the movie. The man featured in the film died while his children were young, and they never knew him as he is in the grainy black-and-white footage. As they move the cart forward, they watch the old reel--the past leads them on.
In recent years, Varda has created many museum installations that combine actual objects with video, and in its way, The Beaches of Agnes is an extension of that. It's one big art happening, a live multimedia staging, beginning with Varda positioning mirrors along a sandy coastline and ending with her in a room built entirely of film strips. As much of her life has been marked by visits to beaches around the world, the seaside becomes her stage. The constant flow of the tide is just like the flow of time. At eighty, Varda has seen and done a lot and known some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. This film is a tribute to all of them and their accomplishments, be they moviemakers, bakers, or musicians. It is also a tribute to the connections they made along the way.
The Beaches of Agnes is never overly sentimental or self-pitying. Varda celebrates even as she mourns. That's why, even at a near two-hour running time, her peculiar autobiography never gets boring. For some who are not film buffs familiar with the director's work, there may be a feeling of "you had to be there" in some of the cinematic ruminations, but overall, a life glimpsed through such a colorful lens becomes the life of anyone who views it. If Agnes Varda is cinema, and cinema is its audience, then we are all Agnes Varda.
The above are words I wrote about Beaches of Agnes a year ago when I first saw it, and I feel they still accurately get to what I loved about the movie. My affection has only increased with memory, and the revisiting has confirmed that the love is deserved. As befitting this kind of project, two short documentary films made by the filmmaker about the process of putting together Beaches serve only to add to the interactive experience of Agnes Varda inviting us into her life. Not just a "making of," but another extension of the central, driving expression.
The first film is called "Around Trapeze Artists" (9 minutes, 18 seconds). It looks at the construction of the trapeze set-up on the beach, once again melding the creation with the personal. Varda focuses on one of the female trapeze artists, hearing her story, asking why the life in the high swing attracts her. We also get a digression from the film's line producer, who explains her job while hanging from a trapeze, illustrating the dangerous act of gathering money and trying to bring a film in on budget. It's a leap of faith, an expression of agility, swinging to get the movie made. Art without a net.
This is followed by "Daguerre-Beach" (8:56), which also begins with construction. This time, it's creating the false beach in front of Varda's office, and as usual, the work turns to play, as the director enjoys sticking her toes in the sand and letting children run wild. Theories on cinema are mixed with cinematic recollections as she and a friend discuss her movies and mythology, followed by more frolic and experiments within her sandy creation. These could be deleted scenes from the movie, but they are more than that. These two behind-the-scenes films are like pocket universes from within the main film.
The final treat is a movie Varda made in 2003: "Le Lion Volatil" (11:26). Though a fiction film, it still has some roots in documentary and springs out of a correlation drawn between the cat that serves as the logo for Varda's film company and the version of the Lion of Belfort on display as a monument in Paris. The story of the picture involves a young woman (Julie Depardieu) enthralled with both the magic pronunciations of a clairvoyant and the magic tricks of a young man (David Deciron) she shares lunch and a little romance with. Varda plays with the notions of transience and permanent, as enacted in changing relationships and immortalized in bronze. The young woman is a dreamer, and it's ultimately the dreamers that this picture is for, the ones who can envision a large lion on display in the middle of the city and all the permutations that could allow.
And really, that's what this whole filmic experience is about: The Beaches of Agnes is about dreaming, and it's been made in tribute to the dreamers. A life without a little fantasy, without romance and myth and fooling around, is not worth living. Agnes Varda's work is there to provoke these things, to make us remember the good times and the bad and how they are both so important to who we are.
The optional English subtitles are very good, easy to read and well written.
There is also a 12-page book with photos, liner notes, and a new essay by Amy Taubin.