Varda, Agnes: French New Wave Filmmaker

In her new, terrifically engaging docu “The Beaches of Agnès” (“Les Plages d’Agnès”), vet French filmmaker Agnès Varda (born May 30, 1928) takes a long look back at her life and art by revisiting her favorite beaches.   A touching personal memoir, with moving recollections of her late husband Jacques Demy (who died of AIDS), “Beaches” also serves an informal history of the New Wave, of which Varda was a co-founder and the only significant female member.


Varda still projects a youthful, curious, restless, highly intelligent spirit, open to all kinds of experiences and encounters.  From the Belgian beach of her youth, Varda’s narrative goes on to Sète, a seaside resort town in Southern France, Venice Beach in Los Angeles (where she first met Jim Morrison), Noirmourtier Island, and finally Paris.  To illustrate her time in Paris, decidedly not a beach town, Varda has imported sand onto a street, in which she has created an office with staff working at desks, answering phones, etc.


The beaches of her childhood are Varda’s point of departure for a journey down memory lane that’s remarkably not sentimental or nostalgic. Instead of lamenting the state of current cinema, or the natural slowing down that inevitably goes along with aging, she is upbeat in outlook, emphasizing the positive aspects and the cumulative impact of a rich life.


A lucid, illuminating, occasionally playful and humorous voice-over narration accompanies this collage of photographs, movie clips, interviews, letters, and assorted encounters. “Here I am,” she says in the opening, self-deprectaing scene, “playing the role of a little old lady, pleasingly plump and talkative, telling the story of my life.”  “Imagining oneself as a child is like running backwards,” she later states. “Imagining oneself ancient is funny, like a dirty joke.”


It’s not surprising that two of the major figures that appear in the docu are divergent, even extreme opposites: the cerebral avant-garde director Chris Marker, who’s hilariously camouflaged, and indie director Zalman King, known for such dubious fare as “The Red Shoe Diaries.”  Marker, who interviews Varda about her choices, declined to appear on camera; instead, he is rendered as a cartoon Cheshire cat.


Knowing that windy and sandy beaches with clear blue skies above are extremely cinematic, Varda begins her feature with a sequence of her crew setting up a series of mirrors, of various sizes and in elaborate frames, planted all over the Belgian beach where she spent her childhood.


Varda began her career as a photographer and her artist’s vibrant eye is clearly at work in her latest work. Throughout the docu, She recreates memories and fantasies from her youth.   Varda has had a remarkably accomplished career, as a fisherman, photographer, political activist, co-founder of the French New Wave, wife and working partner of Jacques Demy.


A distinguished director in her own right, she has made about 20 films.  Her best-known works include “Cléo From 5 to 7” (1962), a landmark of the New Wave and her first major hit, “Le Bonheur” (1965), an ironic look at happiness, the controversially feminist “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (1977), and the superlative pseudo-documenatry study of a homeless female drifter, “Vagabond” (1985), arguably her best film, for which she achieved international acclaim. 


Over the past two decades, Varda has mostly made documentaries, including “Jacquot de Nantes” (1991), “The Universe of Jacques Demy” (1995), a film about her husband’s childhood, and the highly regarded “The Gleaners and I” (2000). Her visits to the locations where these films were shot include interviews with those involved in their making.


Time and again, she returns to her childhood home, tracking the current owners of her old house (and their neighbors, too). She talks about her marriage to filmmaker Jacques Demy, introduces her two grown children, Rosalie and Mathieu, and also her children’s children.


Among many achievements Varda can claim is being one of the few who could convince Jean-Luc Godard, a hero and friend, to remove his signature dark glasses, “because I wanted to photograph his beautiful eyes.”  A personal cinematic essay about art, memory, mortality and the power of film, “Beaches of Agnes” is the kind of film that would be approved by Godardand the other leaders of the New Wave.


In the end, Varda has the last word, when she states: “My mise-en-scène is my way of sharing my gratitude.”   “Beaches of Agnès” showcases an alert artist, who despite older age still is very much at the height of her creative powers and inquisitive intelligence. 

It’s a testament to the film’s dense texture and captivating commentary, and to Varda’s charismatic personality, that the docu encourages you to revisit her entire oeuvre chronologically.