Autobiographical collage, The Beaches of Agnes consists of bits and pieces from the life and work of director Agnes Varda, as assembled by the subject herself.
Far from a vanity project (I can’t think of a filmmaker less given to vanity), Varda mostly takes the opportunity to honor the countless friends, family members, and colleagues who have been a part of her life. The approach shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Varda’s films have all exhibited a vibrant interest in others. Here, visiting her childhood home in Belgium, she’s less drawn to the rooms she used to know than she is to the toy train collector who now lives there. (As a trip down memory lane, she says, the visit “was a flop.”)
Not that Varda always diverts attention from herself. Plenty of time is given to her filmography, with revealing insights about the making of La Pointe Courte; The Creatures; One Sings, The Other Doesn’t; and her two masterpieces: Vagabond and Cleo From 5 to 7. There is also an extended section dedicated to her decades-long relationship with fellow director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), whose own youth Varda tries to fictionalize on film during the last days of his life.
More revealing than any of this, especially for those who are already familiar with her films and basic biography, is the way Varda seems to turn every moment of her life into an art installation of sorts. For a visit to the beach she often visited as a child, Varda and her assistants bring along about a dozen mirrors, placing them at various angles to create an endless array of reflections. Later, she projects some test footage from La Pointe Courte onto a cart that was used in the movie, and then rolls it down a twilight street where the picture was originally filmed. In fact, the superimposing of moving images over objects is a recurring motif, as when footage of lapping waves are projected onto a white cloak that Varda is wearing. The implication is that for Varda, life and cinema are always sharing the same space, one where they merge to create a perspective on the world that was decidedly her own.