For filmgoers determined to see cinema not just as mass entertainment but as an art form, "The Beaches of Agnes" arrives like an exhilarating call to arms. The Agnes in question would be Agnes Varda, the venerable French filmmaker (by way of Brussels) who in this lively, visually stunning autobiographical essay has created a poignant summa of her extraordinary life and career.
If you can't recall Varda's films -- her best-known titles are "Cleo From 5 to 7," "The Gleaners and I" and "Vagabond" -- no matter. "The Beaches of Agnes" will no doubt enchant newcomers to her work just as thoroughly as it will captivate her longtime fans.
"The Beaches of Agnes" begins with Varda, now 81, arranging a group of mirrors on a beach, gently ordering a crew of young people to arrange them just so. The resulting installation, a gorgeous collage of sea, sand and the human form, serves as an apt introduction of Varda, who began as a photographer and art student. What's more, it serves as a display of Varda's practice as a director whose exacting vision has managed to coexist with leftist feminist principles. (She makes sure to introduce each crew member by name.)
In a swiftly moving life story, Varda proceeds to touch on her birth in Belgium, a move during World War II to the harbor town of Sete, France, her stint in art school in Paris and finally her partnership with the love of her life, New Wave director Jacques Demy ("The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"). But rather than a straightforward autobiography, Varga conceives "The Beaches of Agnes" as a densely layered collage, wherein she revisits and reenacts singular moments in her experience, arranges family portraits, uses clips of her films and stages surreal scenes depicting both the events and interior life of an artist.
"The Beaches of Agnes" might be the best film yet from a director who for half a century has managed to inspire, astonish and endure.
-- Ann Hornaday (September 11, 2009)
Unrated, 110 minutes Contains a brief scene of sensuality and nudity. In French with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.