REFLECTIONS: Review of The Beaches of Agnes


In 1991, a year after Agnes Varda’s husband Jacques Demy died sadly from AIDS, Varda released a film she made based on his life. It was called Jacquot. Demy is the brilliant director of such films as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lola and Varda’s look at her husband’s life was filled with a deep love. It was a beautiful, emotionally laden movie told in recreations and puppet animation. It was my favorite movie of that year. Now in 2010, she has followed up that story with The Beaches of Agnes, an equally beautiful and emotionally laden film about her own life. It’s a hard movie to describe because it’s not told like a traditional biography, like something one might see on PBS. It begins with Varda setting up mirrors on the Beach of Agnes (she spent much of her life on or near beaches) as a metaphor for what she is doing perhaps, creating not her life, but a reflection of it. Varda is often considered the mother of the French new wave and often credited with creating the first new wave film La Pointe-Courte. Her most noted films, at least in the U.S., are Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond and The Gleaners and I. Here she uses scenes from those and others of her movies, often taking a still from a film and superimposing it over their modern day locations, to tell her life story; she recreates scenes from her growing up during WWII living on a boat where she and her siblings had to wear life jackets in case they fell off (which they constantly did); she uses photos and old movies; she interviews old friends (Harrison Ford shows up in a cameo because he auditioned for one of her films and the studio told him to give up acting) as well as local people she used in her movies; she films her family (her son is actor Mathieu Demy, though he seems rather camera shy here playing himself, and her daughter Rosalie, the love child of Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo in Umbrellas… is a costume designer); she walks backwards, leading us into the past; she recreates a painting of Maigret of two lovers whose faces are covered in material, then shows their whole bodies, a nude man and woman (with the man sporting a full erection); at one point she uses a cardboard cutout of a car that is pasted onto some small motorized vehicle to show how difficult it was to park in a garage (it would take her 13 back and forths to get it in). It’s like watching your grandmother recreate her life story in front of your eyes, painfully moving in its beauty (well, your grandmother might have omitted the scene with the nude man). Though she rarely achieved the fame of filmmakers like Truffaut and Goddard, she never stopped finding ways to make movies; wherever she found herself, she got a camera and started shooting. Though at times it seems as if she is doing this to say goodbye, one hopes this isn’t true.

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