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The Beaches of Agnès

A Lifetime of Filmmaking

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Agnès Varda opens her documentary The Beaches of Agnès with the comment “I’m playing the role of a little old lady.” On a beach, she sets up cameras and ornately framed antique mirrors. Her children and grandchildren help her change the looking-glass angles to see themselves, Varda and the cameras behind her. These children look slightly apprehensive: What will this eccentric demand of them next?

This is Varda’s essay on herself, as a filmmaker startled to discover that she’s about to be 80 years old. What holds the film together is the theme of the waters’ edges; at beaches, riversides, canals or stone quays, she voyages out and returns home.

In one instance, setting up a mock version of her office, Varda pours sand into a Parisian street and poses clerks at desks in bathing suits. This idea rhymes with that incident during the 1968 rebellion, when the students pulled up the cobblestones for weapons against the police, and discovered golden sands underneath. In another incident — Varda describes it as “a flop” because she can’t feel what she thought she would feel — the director revisits a childhood home in Brussels and walks along the rim of a dried-up pond in the back yard.

By contrast, her favorite place growing up is Sete, on the Mediterranean. Varda and her family lived on a boat there. See the canals, and it’s no surprise to learn that Sete is called the Venice of Languedoc. We see a dreamy medieval landscape, a place with its own language. But Sete is also a poor fisher’s city, and Varda’s first film, 1954’s La Pointe Courte, was shot there: a neorealist effort with shifting perspectives, influenced by Faulkner’s The Wild Palms.

Varda films herself piloting a lateen, a flat-bottomed boat with an Arabian sail, up to the Rhone to Avignon, and down the Seine. She visits old friends at Venice Beach in Los Angeles. And she recreates her old place at the Rue Daguerre. Fancy being a photographer, living and working on the street named after the inventor of the camera.

Every glimpse of Varda’s work makes you want to see more. Here are excerpts from Cleo From 5 to 7, recently released on Criterion, and the documentary, Daguerreotypes about her neighbors on the Rue Daguerre. Varda explains that she could only shoot that documentary in a 300-meter radius around her front door because no one wanted to pay for the electricity, so she ran the lights off an extension cord protruding from the mail slot on her gate.

We see tidbits of Vagabond — Varda’s 1985 movie that made the much-vaunted Wendy and Lucy just look like a nice try. In the context of Varda’s brave fight for reproductive rights — she signed her name on a list of women who admitted that they had had abortions — 1977’s sometimes feather-brained international hit One Sings, the Other Doesn’t acquits itself.

But the point is that Varda isn’t just reviving her old movies, like a guest on a chat show. She has a wider gaze than that. I can’t recall a film so honest about the pleasures and pitfalls of filmmaking. She stresses something that filmmakers say occasionally: The friendships mean more than the finished product. It’s something usually said when discussing a cinematic failure. When Varda says it, it sounds completely true.

It seems that what drew Varda to the movie camera was a democratic eye and a do-it-yourself mentality. This French new-wave veteran was always good at spotting talent, whether it was the young Gerard Depardieu (seen in Varda’s quay-side short Nausicaa), the lovely and severe Jane Birkin, Philipe Noiret, and the young Harrison Ford, who comes out of seclusion to greet Varda today.

If there’d been a spot of pretense or great-ladyisms, The Beaches of Agnes would have been unwatchable. Varda is not afraid to look fond, or ridiculous.

In honor of the heart-shaped-potato sequence in her brilliant The Gleaners and I, she dresses in a potato costume, DEVO-wise, as part of a multimedia piece on the spud.

She is a person who helps herself to discards. Varda loves flea markets, which seems to me a love every filmmaker ought to have. And her instincts as a recycler make her take the print of one of her failed films — a forgotten film “with beautiful actors” — and construct it into a sheltering structure in a park.

In The Beaches of Agnès, Varda includes the part that death plays in her life. At a photo exhibit, honoring her friend Jean Vilar, the creator of the Avignon Festival, she points to the lost friends in the photos. It prepares us, finally, for the tombstone reading “Ici Repose Jacques Demy.” “The most cherished of the dead,” Varda says of her husband, the director of one of the most popular French imports of the 1960s, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Seeing The Beaches of Agnès means seeing Varda’s daughter, Rosalie, all grown up; she was once the child who looked out of the snowy car window at the gas station in the last scenes of Umbrellas.

Varda made another movie — It doesn’t look very good — commemorating the 100th anniversary of cinema. She personified cinema as a grand-mannered aristocrat of many names and a fading memory.

From the vantage of The Beaches of Agnès, a better embodiment of cinema would be an old lady: frank, kind, fearless and full of charming and fascinating stories; one who’d been with us at childhood and one who would somehow be there all the way to the end.