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Film Review

The Beaches of Agnes

An autobiography in film? Very few. The Bicycle Thief or 400 Blows, from their youth, but not an entire life. The great French director, Agnes Varda, has just written, directed. and produced a wonderful, fascinating, and often poignant film about her life, against the backdrop of mid and late 20th century French cinema and history. It is rich, dense in the best sense, and a visual delight. The Beaches of Agnes opens with her directing her crew setting up a series of mirrors on the beach, which she uses to film the sea, herself, and her crew. She introduces each crew member who is seen in the mirror. And begins to talk to us about her philosophy, her experiences, and her insights. What we see immediately is her willingness to try new techniques and to constantly try to reinvent film making. All this at age 80.

We see her childhood in Brussels, as one of four children of a very assimilated Greek immigrant and a French mother. She drives to the house she grew up in, and has a fascinating conversation with the doctor who now lives there, a rabid collector of model trains. Varda recounts having to leave Brussels with her mother and siblings in 1940 as the Germans invaded. They managed to reach Sete, France, a small fishing village on the Mediterranean, just east of Marseille. Shortly thereafter, her father died in a fall at a casino. The family lived on a boat at the wharf, and despite the war, had a fairly pleasant life. Much later, she makes a film about the fishermen of Sete, and in Beaches, films some of the young boys, now older men, who were in her early film. This concept is repeated several times in her film, and becomes a very poignant message about time and memory. The war ends, and she goes to Paris to study art history at the Louvre, which she loved and clearly influenced her films. She enrolled in a photography school, and clearly had a talent for photography. Then, wanting to put words with her photographs, she began to make films in the early 1960's. Her first, Cleo, was a box office flop, but the experience was invaluable. Beaches skips in and out of archival footage, the filming of Cleo, and Varda always looking directly at us while telling her story. This is the format for most of the film, and it is never less than fascinating. The chapters of her life are often connected by Varda walking backwards, still talking to us, as a metaphor for her attempt to travel back to the past. Sounds hokey but it isn't.

Beaches is filled with memorable moments and scenes, such as projecting her Sete fishermen film on a small screen, mounted on one of the handcarts used in the film, with the projector on the same cart, and pushing it through the streets. Thoroughly wonderful! I could fill pages with descriptions of these scenes, often very beautiful and inventive. An acrobatic team performing on a beach, or toward the end, on the same beach, her entire family, children and grandchildren, all in white, doing a ballet. There is also much film history here: Varda's 1962 film about the Cuban revolution, her great film about murals, Mur Murs, her influence on New Wave cinema and close friendships with Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, etc, and the great love of her life, Jacques Demy, whom she married. Demy, of course, is most famous for his Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and there are wonderful shots of a very young Catherine Deneuve (worth the price of the film alone). Although very close, each worked separately, and never directly collaborated on films. Much of Beaches is a loving tribute to Demy, who died of AIDS in 1991.

She has made so many good films: One Sings, the Other Doesn't; The Gleaners; Vagabond; to name a few. But there are so many wonderful things in Beaches, that ironically, this autobiography may be Varda's best film. She is so talented it takes your breath away. Her final words to us are "When I remember, I live", and her Beaches of Agnes will live in your heart and memory forever. It is a great, great film. Anyone who loves films needs to see this, and see it on the big screen. Opened a week ago at Opera Plaza, so may not be around much longer.

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