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Near the end of The Beaches of Agnès, Belgian-born French filmmaker Agnès Varda talks in voice-over about her mother’s golden years, which were tainted by the woman’s increasing forgetfulness and inability to remember her own children’s names. “But who would correct her?” Varda muses. “She had a right to ramble.”
Viewers may grant Varda the same courtesy while watching Beaches, which Varda wrote and directed herself and claims will be her last film, allowing the now-82-year-old member of the French New Wave and, more specifically, the Left Bank Cinema movement, to tell her life story exactly the way she pleases. Anyone familiar with Varda’s work (Cleo From 5 to 7, Vagabond, The Gleaners and I) might rightly guess that Beaches will be no ordinary biopic. In fact, it’s often more about the people who have touched Varda’s life instead of the “little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative” herself. And it certainly rambles, though the patient viewer might say that the 110-minute film ambles genially along, following only roughly the three-arc structure we’ve come to expect from biography.
Varda explains the film’s title with a cryptic, “If you open up most people, you’ll find landscapes. If they opened me up, they’d find beaches.” At the doc’s opening, the tiny, hardly octogenarian-looking dynamo is indeed on a North Sea beach with a small crew, setting up mirrors to reflect other mirrors to reflect people and the sea so they can re-create a childhood memory captured in an old photo. Varda accompanies the disclosure that she changed her first name when she was 18 by drawing her birth name (Arlette) in the sand, only to have the sea quickly erase it. And when she’s ready to get into the meat of her story—Varda claims no strong connection to her childhood—she faces the camera and walks on the beach backward, a move she’ll make a few times throughout the film lest we forget that the film is (ahem) retracing steps.
The backward steps are among the least precious touches in this highly stylized and occasionally insufferably high-concept film. You don’t have to know Varda’s work to find her story interesting; it helps, though, if you’re game for melodramatic narrative assists that hover between arty and weird-for-the-sake-of-weird. The most egregious case of the former has Varda looking at an installation of her old photos (she started her career in photography and still exhibits today), admitting that though the captured moments are whimsical, “What I see is [that the subjects] are dead.” So with the doc’s film crew taping another film crew taping her, Varda drops flowers in front of each photograph, toddling slowly from one to the next.
And those photos? They’re everywhere. Here’s an elderly lady, apropos of nothing, sitting completely naked. Or another nude couple with bags over their heads, first shot close-up but then stepping away from the camera, at least one with evidence of arousal. The image follows Varda’s story about how she met and fell in love with her late husband and acclaimed filmmaker, Jacques Demy, though, so at least this image, however startling, fits. More grating bits of whimsy include an interviewed friend, Chris Marker, who appears as a life-size cartoon cat with his voice altered. Or an anecdote about a tight parking area in her home, illustrated by Varda pretending to be behind the wheel of a one-dimensional cardboard car. It’s not a surprise when the filmmaker says that, when she was growing up, “reality meant little to me.”
Mercifully, the flights of fancy settle down toward the film’s end and Varda increasingly comes across as a very smart and rather charming citizen of the real world as opposed to an artist too out-there to be relatable. She admits to being “seduced” by Los Angeles when Demy was lured to Hollywood. (A small tangent about screen-testing a very young Harrison Ford is one of the film’s only laughs: He was told by a studio head that he’d never make it as an actor.) Varda says that when she was a young adult, she was “nervous, reserved, insecure, intimidated by everything”—astonishing, considering the creative geyser she’s become, so sure of herself and of her art and not slowing in old age. Most touching is her recollection of Demy’s final days before he died of AIDS, with the experience moving her to film a story about his childhood as well as create an art exhibit comprising interviews with other widows.
Even when Varda’s narrative turns to these Everywoman topics, the film remains visually florid. Many scenes are black and white, some with a single gorgeous splash of color, and whether you’re familiar with Varda or not, The Beaches of Agnès is ultimately fascinating—as art, yes, but also as a moving confession.