The act of cinematic self-portrait can run the risk of self-indulgence, as well as redundancy. That goes double for anyone whose work is as distinctive and expressive as that of Agnes Varda, the only significant female director to emerge from the French New Wave, and arguably the most important female director to come out of post-World War II Europe -- and she's still going strong in 2009. It's not as though her films haven't said a great deal about who she is across a half-century; to one degree or another, she's been creating a self-portrait since the 1950s. But The Beaches of Agnes manages not only to distill down what the filmmaker herself regards as most significant and personally resonant from those works, but to weave it together with a personal story that's as dazzling as any film-on-film that you might ever see. Along the way, we hear a tale of a Belgian family of mixed Greek/French descent (though the Greek side was never talked about) that was dislocated by the Second World War, and the story of a girl who survived in Vichy France and turned to photography, specializing in theatrical subjects -- and from there to filmmaking. Varda's life and work -- starting out in black-and-white in the first flourish of the French New Wave in the mid-'50s -- eventually came to intersect with the world of the '60s pop-art underground during her extended stay in Los Angeles (which leads to a fascinating digression in this movie). We also catch glimpses of Jim Morrison of the Doors as an observer of her work, and there's a comically masked appearance by editor and fellow filmmaker Chris Marker (who did with stills, in La Jetee, what she once brushed past as a notion as a still photographer: mixing dialogue and music with still images to make a movie). Also included is the music of Serge Gainsbourg, and, of course, the world and work of director Jacques Demy, Varda's late husband (1931-1990). Varda the documentarist also gives way to Varda the feminist, and we move up to the contemporary Varda of 2007. The transition from stills and pre-widescreen black-and-white work in the early '50s, as well as grainy short subjects, to high-profile, color, widescreen international pictures in the 1960s and '70s is as stimulating visually as it is thematically.
What makes this movie so compelling throughout its 110 minutes, however, is not just the sheer depth and range of the content, but the way in which Varda weaves it all together, never losing any warmth or emotion, and giving the audience a strong sense of who she is, in private as well as in public. A viewer can come into this movie not knowing much -- or anything -- about Agnes Varda or her films, and will be drawn into that world and those works. Equally to the point, in almost any vehicle as personal as this, one discovers that there's not only a lot to love about the work, but a lot to like about the subject herself. Varda's light-hearted tone and approach are as beguiling as the images from her films (and those of Demy). And despite the obvious shadow of his loss in her life, a great many of the images -- and, indeed, most of the content of this movie -- are laced with humor and joy. This is a filmmaker who appreciates wit and warmth in the telling of a good story, and hers is a very good story.
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- Released: 2008
- Rating: NR
- Review: The act of cinematic self-portrait can run the risk of self-indulgence, as well as redundancy. That goes double for anyone whose work is as distinctive and expressive as that of Agnes Varda, the only significant female director to emerge from the French Ne… (more)