Having watched The Beaches of Agnès, I don’t want to talk about “Agnès Varda, the Grandmother of the New Wave,” or “Varda, the…(gasp)…woman director.” I want to talk about Agnès, the joyful, funny 80-year-old whose wisdom lies in her childlike sense of wonder.
But before I indulge, you deserve to know what I’m rambling about: Varda emerged in 1954 with La pointe-courte, a film that shifts between scenes from a troubled marriage and pseudo-documentary footage of the fishing village from which the movie takes its name. Its DIY-style and intellectual ambitions marked it as a predecessor of and inspiration to the French New Wave. Her next feature, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), became a keystone of the movement. In the last half-century, Varda made nearly 40 more features, documentaries, shorts, and installations, influencing everyone from Wes Anderson to the Dardenne Brothers. Beaches, her latest, is a poetic memoir of a life lived for film, through film, and on film. It comes to America with some impressive credentials, having already won the César (the French Oscar) for Best Documentary.
Most memoirs are attempts to hold onto history, weighed down by a sense that one’s best days are long gone. Not Varda's. Beaches is a joyride, replicating the spontaneity and incongruity of memory. She lets loose her surreal sense of humor, dragging ornate mirrors through the sand, building a beach in the heart of France, and narrating one sequence from the innards of a fake whale carcass.
Critics laud her New Wave brethren as individualists, intellectuals, and cinephiles. But none of those terms best describes Varda. Above all else, she’s a humanist. She’s fascinated by people living — living within their environment, living with things, living with other people. Often her narratives provide but the thinnest thread through which she explores a larger world of people and images.
In Beaches, Varda applies the same cinematic ethos to herself. Her life and work provide a chance to revel in the company of those she’s met along the way. A trip to her childhood home feels empty until the house’s current owner shows Varda his model train collection. That's when Varda delves headfirst into this ecstatic tangent, only one of many that energize the documentary. On her journey, she encounters family, friends, a plethora of celebrities, and New Wave co-conspirator Chris Marker, disguised as his famous cartoon cat. The film’s poetic style owes a debt to Marker, but its unbridled wonder at the particulars of life make it more fun than, say, Sans Soleil.
However, not all is sunshine. The spirit of filmmaker Jacques Demy, Varda's husband, who succumbed to AIDS in 1990, haunts Beaches. Her tangents often return to him. His memory brings her to tears in front of her own camera. She traces her sorrow in work ranging from Jacquot de Nantes, a biopic about Demy’s youth, which she made during his last days, to L’Ile et Elle, an installation that gathered widows to reminisce about their lost loves. Varda features herself in this piece, speechless. True love is never as believable as it is in this portrait of its loss. It’s an unexpected punch that gives Beaches a greater heft and transforms Varda's humor into an active philosophy, an affirmation of life against entropy.
I can’t say how this film will play for those not indoctrinated in the Varda oeuvre. While its humor and fast pace make it more accessible than many of her features, it might also seem irrelevant or indulgent outside the context of her body of work. However, one of a film critic's greatest pleasures is to introduce the reader to films they might have never seen. So go check out La point-courte, Cleo from 5 to7, Happiness, Vagabond, and whatever else you can find -- and then see Beaches. Sure, that’s a commitment. But the lessons it yields are invaluable: Varda teaches us that we don’t have to choose between good cinema and a good life.