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MOVIE REVIEW

A director sifts through her life in 'The Beaches of Agnès'

One of the seminal filmmakers of the French New Wave, Varda stood with Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Alain Resnais.

July 03, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

There is a street in the Pointe Courte neighborhood of Sete, a seaside village in Southern France, that is named for Agnes Varda, the French filmmaker who lived there in the '40s with her mother, brothers and sisters in a sailboat anchored to the quay while her father was off at war.

It looks like an ordinary street, and in truth it is. And yet it isn't.

In her first film, 1954's "La Pointe-Courte," it was a path for a pair of lovers, beautiful in their self-absorption, as well as the fishermen, bakers, tailors and the rest who make up a working village. Parallel stories bumping shoulders on the street. That is the gift of seeing life through Varda's lens, the rhythms of every day turn extraordinary.

Two years ago when she was not quite 80, Varda decided to take a second look at that life, and the result is "The Beaches of Agnes," a lovely bit of memory and mischief. You can feel her amusement in the way she's stitched together remnants of her life: Fishing nets and filmstrips are equals here, sand and the past kicking up around her as she walks backward -- literally at times -- then forward again, contemplating, teasing, drawing us close, then closing us off.

One of the seminal filmmakers of the French New Wave, she waded into those experimental waters long ago with those she calls her cinematic brothers -- Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Alain Resnais among them. It was a man's world and she loved it.

That sense of liberation infuses "Beaches." When others might choose to spend their eighth decade spoiling grandchildren and drinking tea (and make no mistake she is doing a bit of that), Varda is clearly still searching for new cinematic shores, and finding them. Packed as the new film is with so many interlocking love stories, of people and places, of ideas and experimentation, it's difficult not to leave the theater giddy at being swept up in her embrace.

Varda says at the beginning of the documentary that when she looks inside people she sees landscapes. Beaches, she explains, would describe her best, starting with the one she is standing on that faces the North Sea near Brussels, where she was born and the family lived until the advancing Germans frightened them into escape.

To help us understand, she is setting up mirrors in the sand. Some gilded, others unadorned, some spotted and in old frames like the director -- I want to be filmed in those, she laughs. The reflections are fragments of Varda, of the film students doing her bidding on that day, of surfers walking by, sailboats in the water beyond. The images are beautiful, incomplete, yet satisfying all the same.

Family photos rest in the sand, one is of her younger self and a sister in bathing suits playing on the beach. She decides to re-create the moment. She does, then wonders if there is any meaning to be found in that process.

It is not the first time she has asked this question. It is there in her work, and it rises in many forms throughout the documentary as she resurrects and re-imagines the past, as she did in the 1991 film "Jacquot de Nantes," a memory book of a movie created for her dying husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy. Varda stages moments of his childhood that emerge later as moments in his films and vice versa. She puts them side by side. Parallel stories, bumping shoulders.

In "Beaches," Varda does not so much tell us about her world as let us see how she constructs it, visually and intellectually, and it is breathtaking at times to watch. Though it is never exactly a straight line, the documentary takes us through the progression of her work, films such as "Cleo From 5 to 7," the one that would introduce her to the world in 1961; her children, her life with Demy, her friends, all the things she holds precious.

"Beaches" also takes us into the other rooms of her artistic life, which got its start in still photography. The thousands of photos she shot of China in 1957, of Cuba and Castro in 1962, of the Black Panthers and protest in Los Angeles in 1968, of widows after Demy's death in 1990. Often they become pieces of performance art, as did the widows project.

There is also much laughter and whimsy dancing around this life. Midway through the documentary, Varda constructs a huge whale on one of her beaches out of tarps and then sits in the belly, like Jon- ah, telling us part of her story. Philosophical questions are posed by an orange cardboard cat with the synthesized voice of filmmaker Chris Marker. She creates a sandy beach in her Paris courtyard and moves her staff outside to conduct the day's business in bathing suits.

Varda has always been fascinated by the discards of life and it is a theme she threads through "Beaches." She still haunts flea markets. In one she finds cinema cards of herself -- "here's 10 cents for my film," she tells the vendor. Her finds fill her home and her work. Varda's 2000 film, "The Gleaners and I," examined the whole idea of it, the notion of how value is assigned.

Near the end of the documentary Varda walks inside a space she's created. The walls are constructed out of strips of film from a long-ago project that failed, she tells us, no fault of the actors. She sits inside, bathed in the light that pours through the reclaimed celluloid. She has found a way to make it beautiful this time. She is happy.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'The Beaches

of Agnes'

MPAA rating: Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena

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