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Review: The Beaches of Agnès

Agnès Varda’s film is as insistently wry as it is haunting.

The Beaches of Agnès
Photo: Cinema Guild

Cinévardaphoto may have been an omnibus of three disparate pieces of film spanning across decades, and it may not have dealt directly with the lives and times of its creator Agnès Varda, but it acted like a cohesive autobiography. Beginning with the newest piece of film which itself commented on the oldest artifacts, Cinévardaphoto moved inward from the two temporal extremes until arriving at the oldest but most contemporarily concerned segment: “Salut Les Cubains,” in which Varda’s still photos of Cuba in the early Castro years are made to dance with the vibrancy of the “now.” What is an autobiography if not an attempt to harness the most ancient, ephemeral strands of one’s own consciousness and synthesize them with one’s current self? Thus, the representation itself is almost like an attempt at reincarnation, and thereby can exist even if it doesn’t directly retell its makers’ tale, which Cinévardaphoto obviously didn’t. And it wasn’t the first time she hovered outside the parameters of the form. When paying tribute to her dying life partner Jacques Demy in the film Jacquot de Nantes, she took his hastily scribbled memories and filtered them through his own life’s work, replaying scenes and drawing episodic parallels. In essence, she jumped into the driver’s seat of someone else’s autobiography, but suggested that Demy had already connected the dots himself in his own films.

Now, with The Beaches of Agnès, Varda allows herself the opportunity to acquiesce to a candid, comparatively direct look back. Granted, her initial joking of “Now I’m to play the old lady” indicates the 80-year-old harbors some skepticism about what insight might come from the endeavor. But eventually, as one is introduced time and again to people from Varda’s childhood whose own memories have slipped into a dark blue vague, and as Varda herself stops mid-film to lay roses in memory of all the artistic collaborators who have passed in her lifetime, one realizes that she is likely only doing so because there is simply no one left to return the favor she earlier paid Demy—aside, perhaps, from Chris Marker, who puts in a self-mockingly cryptic appearance as the cartoon cat Guillaume, asking Varda uncharacteristically aggressive questions she waves off at whim.

Even taking that into consideration, Beaches is as insistently wry as it is haunting. In the gorgeous if suggestively satirical opening sequence, Varda sets up a labyrinth of mirrors along a Belgian beach; her self-reflectivity is undercut by her own admission that she wore a long scarf to the beach that day because she knew it would flap in the blustery wind photogenically. Later in the film, she introduces two grown-up boys to the father they never knew by showing them test footage she shot of him pushing a cart through the narrow streets of the Pointe Courte neighborhood where she shot her first film; bringing the past into the present, and vice versa, she rigs up the projector and screen on a cart so they can likewise push it through those very same cobbled byways. Beaches doesn’t quite dance through the space-time continuum as provocatively as did Cinévardaphoto’s citizens of 1962 Cuba, and it assumes rather a lot of foreknowledge of Varda’s cinematic works, but in moments like that mobile cinema-rickshaw, it breathlessly escapes time.

Cast: Agnès Varda, André Lubrano, Rosalie Varda, Mathieu Demy, Christophe Vallaux, Anne-Laure Manceau, Jim McBride, Tracy McBride, Zalman King, Chris "Guillaume" Marker Director: Agnès Varda Screenwriter: Agnès Varda Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 107 min Rating: NR Year: 2008 Buy: Video

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