The Beaches of Agnes
Spring 2010 Documentary series
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 7:00pm
Directed by Agnès Varda
Screenplay by Agnès Varda
Starring Agnès Varda
Rated NR ·
Some filmmakers, like Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard, instantly announce their greatness. With others, the greatness becomes clear when you look back over their career. Such is the case of Agnes Varda, the 81-year-old French director whose reputation just keeps growing.
So does her body of work: At an age when many of us would be happy just to be breathing, she’s making some of the best and most original movies of her life.
Varda belongs to that astonishing era of French directors — Godard, Resnais, Rohmer, Truffaut, Marker, Chabrol, Rivette, Malle and Varda’s own late husband, Jacques Demy — for whom cinema was almost a religious idea. This is a woman who’s spent her whole life collecting images: It’s her way of understanding the world. So it’s only natural that when it came time to give us her autobiography, she’d do it on film.
The Beaches of Agnes is a wonderful portrait of a full life — smart, touching, sometimes unabashedly silly. She sifts through the diverse elements of her life, from her birth in Brussels in 1928 through the self-inventing moment when she changed her name from Arlette to Agnes to her present day status as an octogenarian grandmother and cinematic icon.
Although few things could seem more narcissistic than an autobiography, Varda never slips into self-indulgence.
Instead, Varda teaches us how to understand our lives. We start not with our inner feelings, but with the people and places that matter to us. That’s why the film brims with generous portraits of the people who matter to her.
She takes time to celebrate people, especially her beloved Demy, who made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Almost 20 years after his death, his name can still make her mist up.
Looking back over the 55 years of Varda’s film career, it’s tempting to say that she’s the most distinguished living woman filmmaker. But that would be to insult her with faint praise. She’s one of the most distinguished filmmakers, period.
Varda’s deeply rooted feminism reveals itself mainly in her ferocious independence, in the way that she’s always made the movies she’s wanted to make, however personal or eccentric. As The Beaches of Agnes makes clear, Varda has a strong personality, and the result is one of the two best films currently in our theaters.
It’s worth noting that the other one, The Hurt Locker, a brilliant drama about bomb-defusing soldiers in Iraq, was also directed by a world-class woman filmmaker, Kathryn Bigelow. She, like Varda, has followed her own interests, pointedly avoiding the female-film ghetto. Among other things, nobody is better at action sequences than Bigelow.
And nobody could be a better model for young filmmakers, female or male, than Varda. She began her career at 26 by daring to make a film about her hometown — even though she knew almost nothing about movies — and she’s ending her career enlivened by the same youthful curiosity about the world around her.
Near the beginning of The Beaches of Agnes, Varda tells us that she’s “playing at being an old lady.” Though she’s kidding, she’s actually right: At 81, the playful Varda remains one of the youngest filmmakers around. – John Powers – 2009