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The Beaches of Agnes

Approaching 80, Agnes Varda has resolved to film her memoirs in her own inimitable fashion, presenting a strange cocktail of film clips, commissioned photographs, eulogies, family snapshots, thank-yous and reconstructions that is by turns insightful, schmaltzy, anecdotal, critical and nostalgic.

With:
With: Agnes Varda, Mathieu Demy, Rosalie Varda. (French, English dialogue)

Approaching 80, Agnes Varda has resolved to film her memoirs in her own inimitable fashion, presenting a strange cocktail of film clips, commissioned photographs, eulogies, family snapshots, thank-yous and reconstructions that is by turns insightful, schmaltzy, anecdotal, critical and nostalgic. Honored this year at Venice with the Glory to the Filmmaker award, Varda proved an early blurrer of fact and fiction, as she reminds us, in her pioneering New Wave opus “La Pointe courte.” “The Beaches of Agnes” is a similarly oddball mix that may strike some as overly whimsical but should delight the filmmaker’s many fans.

Docu opens on a Belgian beach with mirrors of different styles, shapes and sizes, replicating reflections (and reflections within reflections) of the ocean. But Varda, in casual deconstructionist mode, also films people in the act of setting up the mirrors, stressing the image as collective creation. The entire film consistently unfolds within this binary focus.

Similarly, the beaches Varda has chosen to metaphorically mark the various stages of her progress function both as accurate biography and as artificial construct. When her brother, her sole surviving family member, joins her for reminiscences about the war years spent in a boat anchored in the fishing port of Sete, France, Varda shows children on the quay dressed in gingham frocks to represent her school days there.

In later installments, though, Varda resorts to simply piling sand on a Parisian street and dressing her staff in bathing suits to kiddingly sustain the conceit.

The obviously fake reconstructions of her own past echo her far more anguished cinematic re-creations of her dying husband Jacques Demy’s childhood in “Jacquot de Nantes.” And indeed, Varda conflates past and present as liberally as she does fact and fiction. Her one commercial flop, the Catherine Deneuve/Michel Piccoli-starring “Les Creatures,” is transformed into a celluloid enclosure whose walls and ceilings are entirely composed of strips from 35mm prints of the film.

Distinctions between personal and social issues likewise melt away. Documentary scenes of angry feminist protests in which Varda participated are interspersed with scenes of an enraged Sandrine Bonnaire lashing out in “Vagabond.”

Glimpses of Varda’s lesser-known works similarly range from the historical to the downright diverting, from extensive footage of the Black Panthers and the Cuban and Chinese revolutions to Jane Birkin and Laura Betti re-creating a Laurel and Hardy slapstick routine.

But it is the plump, diminutive Varda herself who dominates the film, whether at the helm of a yellow boat sailing down the Seine, standing before a 25-foot blowup of her photo of Gerard Philipe or recalling her friendship with Jim Morrison over photos of the two lazing on the grass.

The Beaches of Agnes

France

Production: A Cine-Tamaris, ARTE France Cinema production, with the participation of Canal Plus and the support of the Region Ile-de-France, Region Languedoc-Rousillon, in partnership with the Centre National de la Cinematographie. (International sales: Roissy Films, Paris.) Produced, directed, written by Agnes Varda.

Crew: Camera (color, HD-to-DCP), Alain Sakot, Helene Louvart, Arlene Nelson, Varda; editors, Varda, Jean-Baptiste Morin, Baptiste Filloux; music, Joanna Bruzdowicz, Stephane Vilar, Paule Cornet; production designer, Franckie Diago; sound, Olivier Goinard. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 2, 2008. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Masters.) Running time: 115 MIN.

With: With: Agnes Varda, Mathieu Demy, Rosalie Varda. (French, English dialogue)

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