‘Agnes’: Treatise on French filmmaker unconventional

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, September 10, 2009 1:19pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

I suppose filmmaker Agnes Varda can be accused of name-dropping in her new autobiographical essay-film, “The Beaches of Agnes.” Every 60 seconds there’s a new anecdote about one famous person or another.

But consider: Varda was turning 80 while she made the movie and she’s been active in European culture for many years. So she’s met a few heavyweights along the way.

The people in her orbit have included dictators (Fidel Castro), sculptors (Alexander Calder) and movie stars (Harrison Ford), so it hardly comes as a surprise when she shares photos of herself hanging out with Jim Morrison in the early 1970s. Of course.

“Beaches” is a whimsical walk back through Varda’s life — and true to her impish spirit, she often photographs herself walking backward, as she recalls the people and places she’s seen.

The Belgian-born Varda started out as a still photographer and made her first feature film, “La Pointe Courte,” in 1954. She returns to the seaside location and revisits actors who were just children when the movie was made.

Varda is not as well known as some of the other members of the French New Wave, but in many ways she got the jump on them and even employed some of her male counterparts in the early days.

She married the singular filmmaker Jacques Demy in 1962, just as he was about to make his all-time musical classic, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Their success brought them to Hollywood in the late 1960s, where they made a couple of counterculture movies and apparently enjoyed the sun.

Varda, as a friend reminds her on camera, once walked away from a Hollywood project because a studio executive pinched her cheek (according to her, it was because she didn’t get final cut).

Demy died in 1990 and Varda still appears genuinely bereft at the loss. Her 1991 film “Jacquot de Nantes” is about his childhood and is something of a companion piece to this film.

She includes clips from her own movies, such as “Cleo From 5 to 7” and the 1985 masterpiece “Vagabond.” Her life’s output is erratic, but maybe that’s her personality.

There’s nothing conventional about “The Beaches of Agnes,” which is somehow reassuring. Varda has spent her life going her own peculiar way and there’s absolutely no reason an 80-year-old shouldn’t be avant-garde and zany. Even when it comes to recalling her life story — especially when it comes to that.

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