New-Wave Eccentric’s Autobiopic Flighty as She

The Beaches of Agnès
Starring Agnès Varda, Mathieu Demy & Rosalie Varda
Directed by Agnès Varda
NR
01:50
3 stars

Screen shot 2009-10-29 at 9.36.37 AMRenowned French film director and photographer Agnès Varda (“Cleo from 5 to 7”) steps in front of the camera in this autobiographical documentary about her life as an artist. Shot like a living scrapbook, “The Beaches of Agnès” is a hodgepodge of anecdotes, photographs, home videos, interviews, art and clips from her filmic repertoire that combine to encompass her identity and how she views the world.

At the outset, the 81-year-old introduces the natural framework of her life: the beach. Throughout the film, she explores the ways in which her sense of self was created on and around the timeless sea — from Sète, France, to Venice Beach.

Known for her innovative art installations, Varda frequently shows off an eye for finding the extraordinary within the ordinary, setting up mirrors on the sand to capture the angles of the ocean and recreating black-and-white photographs from her childhood with modern-day child actors.

But the film’s charm rests in its quiet humility, as Varda amusingly waddles backward down the street to visually demonstrate her movement into the past. The film is entirely in French: An English-speaking audience is asked to read along as the pop-up book unfolds with fantastical characters — including a troupe of acrobats, Harrison Ford and an animated Cheshire cat that speaks like a robot alien.

While these various digressions are at times erratic and difficult to follow, Varda creates smooth transitions between the stages of her life, gluing each segment to the next with the sound of a door creaking or images of gondola-jousting.

From life as a young girl to cinematic force — and, finally, wrapped in a love affair with fellow director and husband Jacques Demy — Varda reconstructs her own history by visiting the actors who appeared in her films, floating down the Seine in a yellow sailboat and setting up her production company’s office in an outdoor sandbox.

But Varda is a character in herself. With a red-and-silver bowl cut, the body of a matryoshka doll and the swagger of a mallard, she tells of her futile efforts to be a joyful feminist, her fascination with the Black Panthers, her love for the plastic colors of summer and the feeling of helplessness that overcame her as Demy succumbed to AIDS.

The biggest beauty of the film, however, lies in the fact that we do not need to know anything about Varda to appreciate her artistic eccentricities and innate goofiness. So relax and allow Schubert to fill your head as one of French cinemas’ greats guides you through the life of an artist — to a place where fact and fiction, collide and complement one another in delicate harmony.

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