The great, idiosyncratic original of the French Nouvelle Vague generation, Agnès Varda began her career as a photographer and, in her use of the medium, remains one at heart. Features and documentaries are equally characterized by a fascination with the found and the serendipitous, capturing the momentary and pondering the ways in which memory becomes something tangible — or the way memory shapes the world. That interplay of past and present reaches its apogee with The Beaches of Agnès, a memoir drawing on the 81-year-old artist’s films and photographs, as well as her recollections. It’s also a vehicle: “I’m playing the role of a little old lady, talkative and plump,” she tells us up front. A stylized creature — small and sturdy, with bowl-cut hair and a proud baton of a nose — Varda is, to some degree, self-invented (having changed her name as a teenager from the ultra-French “Arlette” to the more austere “Agnès”), and highly self-aware.
The beach is not only a superb location in which to frame an individual but also the place where people confront the infinite or discover traces of the past washed up on shore. Varda equates those who gaze at the sea with Ulysses; she herself is often dreaming of home. The artistre-creates childhood tableaux, using old family photos; redeploys footage documenting her first meeting with her Greek relations; and revisits homes of her youth in Brussels and the Mediterranean port Sète, where her family relocated during World War II and where, at 26, she made her first movie, the low-budget neorealist experiment La pointe-courte. But mainly, the film is benignly haunted by her late husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy.
The Beaches of Agnès documents Varda’s artistic growth, along with her life, as she evolves from bustling scene-maker to self-conscious autobiographer. Her sense of filmmaking is modest yet baroque; her sensibility is fey but tough. This highly personal filmmaker not only made her husband’s biography (1990’s Jacquot de Nantes) as he was dying of AIDS, but she also put her children in her movies and used her courtyard as a studio — here, re-created in a “real” studio. The mental commerce between Varda’s life and her work is resolutely two-way. In a sense, she has done for herself what she did for Demy — creating a work as charming as it is touching, which serves to explicate and enrich an entire oeuvre. (Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5)