Movie Review: Ann Hornaday on ‘The Beaches of Agnès'

Varda in "The Beaches of Agnès," the autobiographical film that is as much a demonstration of her distinctive cinematic imagination as of her remarkable life.
Varda in "The Beaches of Agnès," the autobiographical film that is as much a demonstration of her distinctive cinematic imagination as of her remarkable life. (Cinema Guild)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

For filmgoers determined to see cinema not just as mass entertainment but as an art form, "The Beaches of Agnès" arrives like an exhilarating call to arms. The Agnès in question would be Agnès 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 off the top of your head -- her best-known titles are "Cleo From 5 to 7," "The Gleaners and I" and "Vagabond" -- no matter. "The Beaches of Agnès" will no doubt enchant newcomers to her work just as thoroughly as it will captivate her longtime fans.

"The Beaches of Agnès" begins with Varda -- now 81 -- arranging a group of mirrors on a beach, gently ordering a crew of young people to place 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 Sète, 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, Varda conceives "The Beaches of Agnès" 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 in constant formation and re-invention.

The result is a film of depth, occasional whimsy and often breathtaking beauty. Staging brief tableaux to illustrate pivotal times in her life, she enlists the help of such friends as actress Jane Birkin and experimental filmmaker Chris Marker (camouflaged behind a giant cutout of a cartoon cat in the film's most gratingly fey gesture). In one particularly vivid and imaginative flights of fancy, Varda choreographs an entire production staff making frantic telephone calls and sitting at computers on a sandy beach that's been installed in the alley where she and Demy lived and worked.

Varda visits her childhood home in Brussels, where she meets an eccentric train collector now inhabiting the house, introduces viewers to the austere beauty of Ile de Noirmoutier, off the coast of Brittany, re-connects with friends in Los Angeles, where she and Demy were courted by Hollywood in the 1960s, and finally convenes her children and grandchildren for a touching, lyrical set piece depicting both the connection and distance she feels toward her family. (The loss of Demy, who had AIDS, in 1990 is still fresh, and Varda's reminiscences of their relationship provides the film's most bittersweet moments.) No matter where she goes, Varda uses the scraps of memory and material at hand to create a profound essay on the nature of narrative, identity and cinema itself.

She invigorates and expands all those notions with "The Beaches of Agnès," a film that is suffused in equal parts grief and joy, and that unlike so many slick, super-processed movies, looks and feels like a handmade work of art. And, like the best art, it's both deeply personal and utterly universal.

"The Beaches of Agnès" serves as a timely reminder to catch up with the past work of Varda, who at one point describes making a film as inviting viewers into the director's reverie. Varda's latest reverie might be the best film yet from a director who for half a century has managed to inspire, astonish and endure.

The Beaches of Agnès (110 minutes, in French with subtitles at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains a brief scene of sensuality and nudity.

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