Agnes Varda, in 'The Beaches of Agnes'

Dir. Agnès Varda
(2009, Not Rated, 110 min)
★ ★ ★

The Beaches of Agnès is an intriguing documentary by French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda, who turns the camera on herself to chronicle her life and career. But “documentary” feels like too reductive a term to describe its hodgepodge of straightforward accounts, old film footage, and elaborate re-enactments and recreations. It reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York in its non-linear distillation of the life of an artist, with the difference that this film isn’t so relentlessly dour.

My attention went in and out. Varda’s autobiographical style is metaphorical, digressive, whimsical in its imagery, and a little self-conscious. Varda walks backwards in some segments to illustrate the feeling of looking into your own past. She sets up mirrors on a beach in the opening scenes; some of her most vivid memories from her youth are of beaches, which are timeless; while the world around them changes, they remain the same. I’ve never seen another Varda film before, and this is either the best introduction to her oeuvre or the worst. Should we look to this film to give context to the rest of her work, or should the rest of her work give context to this one?

I appreciated Varda’s sense of humor; she’s serious about her art, but playful and unpretentious about herself, which makes more palatable the film’s loose, free-associating structure. Occasionally she wallops us emotionally — not with style but with candor. The film’s most moving segments discuss her nearly 30-year marriage to fellow New Wave icon Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990. Her love and heartbreak are palpable. Her remembrances are simple and direct. Some filmmakers are at their most oblique when making “personal” films, expressing their angst while still hiding behind their cinematic devices, but Varda speaks to the audience with unguarded intimacy. She is an interesting filmmaker and an even more interesting woman. For Netflix subscribers, her films Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) and The Gleaners and I (2000), both mentioned in Beaches, are available to stream instantly. Add them to your queue as I have.