Thursday, February 11, 2010


An unexpectedly cinematic life

By Edward Copeland
Director Agnes Varda was concentrating on her young life as a photographer when she was struck by the thought of making a movie, intrigued by the ideas of adding words to her pictures. She admits she was no film buff: She was 25 and recalled having seen only about 10 films in her lifetime. The new artform would shape her life both professionally and privately as she reflects in her unusual and personal autobiographical film The Beaches of Agnes.

As the film opens, Varda confesses that when she tells stories of other people, she always visualizes landscapes, but for this self-written, self-directed, self-narrated examination of her own life and career, she sees beaches. So that's where this highly stylized, truly unique sort of documentary begins as Varda takes us on tours of France and Los Angeles, recounting pivotal moments in her upbringing and how she broke into the film business and found love with her husband, the similarly celebrated filmmaker, the late Jacques Demy.

Varda's films have been a combination of documentaries and fictional features and The Beaches of Agnes seems to fuse both in a sometimes whimsical way, complete with a cartoon cutout of a cat asking Varda questions or the filmmaker practicing her driving in a stage prop of a car. Interspersed are scenes from both the locations of the filmographies of Varda and Demy as well as clips from the films, often projected in the most unusual of ways. Nothing is standard or typical about the way Varda presents this project.

Also included are some home movies, particularly touching ones made while Demy was dying and Varda was rushing to complete a film of his life story while he could still see it, Jacquot de Nantes. It's easily the most powerful part of a film that tends to the light side throughout most of its length, even as Varda marks her own 80th birthday. It does leave some questions unanswered. Varda mentions when she and Demy reconciled, yet if the film referred to a separation, it escaped me.

Even if you've never seen a film by Agnes Varda (or Jacques Demy for that matter), The Beaches of Agnes proves to be a wonderful portrait of the film artist as a young and old woman along with everything in between.

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