The Beaches of Agnes (Cinema Guild, NR)

beachesofagnes.jpgBut let the naïve viewer beware: The Beaches of Agnes is the opposite of a straightforward autobiographical film. It begins with a scene of Varda setting up mirrors on a beach, suggesting that she enjoys creating confusion about what is real and what is not.

If anyone deserves to spend her time basking in the sun and receiving accolades, it’s Agnès Varda. Yet at age 80 she’d rather make another film instead, and the result is The Beaches of Agnes, a feature documentary shortlisted for this year’s Oscars.

I realize that many American film fans may not know who Agnès Varda is, or think of her only as the wife of Jacques Demy (best known for directing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Those individuals in particular should seek out this autobiographical documentary which may give them a taste for checking out some of her films. Among the best known are Cleo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes), Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, winner of the Golden Lion and FIPRESCI prize at the Venice Film Festival) and Les glaneurs et la glanneuse (The Gleaners and I, winner of several international documentary awards).

But let the naïve viewer beware: The Beaches of Agnes is the opposite of a straightforward autobiographical film. It begins with a scene of Varda setting up mirrors on a beach, suggesting that she enjoys creating confusion about what is real and what is not. She also lets slip in this scene that she likes to hide from the camera before proceeding to do so several times, most pointedly by avoiding any but the sunniest discussions of her relationship with Demy and why the cause of his death (AIDS) was kept secret for so long.

But this is Agnes’s film and she calls the shots, proceeding diagonally and discursively through her life and work while intermingling clips from her films, archival footage, and tongue-in-cheek reenactments of scenes from her life and films along with interviews and newly shot footage which offers a more straightforward presentation of reality. The result is a collage you have to put together yourself, and one in which you sense the director is always playing a bit with her audience, not least in the bit where she has herself interviewed about the nouvelle vague by a cartoon cat.

Apart from the inherent interest of its subject, The Beaches of Agnes is a beautifully shot film (and yes, there are quite a few scenes set on beaches) supplied with a nice selection of background music by Joanna Bruzdowicz and Stéphane Vilar. It will also give you an appreciation for how different the film industry is in Europe as opposed to the United States—in particular, how different it was in the 1950s when Varda was beginning her career. For better or worse, France has never had a Hollywood to dominate the commercial film market; instead, they have had a number of directors working on relatively low budgets and developing highly individualistic styles. You might say that everyone was an indie director long before that term was invented.

The expectation that intelligent, interesting films could be made at relatively low cost freed up directors to work on projects which would have a hard time obtaining financing in this country. It also fostered a relaxed attitude toward commercial success and led to the creation of many films which capture aspects of experience which could never fit in a blockbuster. After a lifetime of making such films, Agnès Varda brings all her skills and imagination to present her own story in

The Beaches of Agnes

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Sarah Boslaugh

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