Combustible Celluloid
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With: Agnès Varda, André Lubrano, Rosalie Varda, Mathieu Demy, Christophe Vallaux, Anne-Laure Manceau, Jim McBride, Tracy McBride, Zalman King, Chris Marker
Written by: Agnes Varda
Directed by: Agnes Varda
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 107
Date: 07/01/2009

The Beaches of Agnes (2009)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Varda Party

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 2000 Agnes Varda made one of the most successful films of her entire 50-year career, The Gleaners and I, a kind of documentary about people who "glean," or pick up and use what has been discarded. Varda quickly realized that filming was also an act of "gleaning" and soon turned what might have been an ordinary documentary into a delightful personal essay, filled with her own thoughts and musings. The film jumped easily and playfully from subject to subject, and Varda became comfortable enough to leave in "useless" -- yet interesting -- footage that any lesser filmmaker would have cut out.

Nearly a decade later, she adopts the same approach to telling her own life story in The Beaches of Agnes. It's a unique, funny recollection of a life, through memories and moments. In it, Varda creates new imagery that somehow connects to her past, such as setting up mirrors or a giant homemade whale, or an outdoor office. Most of these images are set on beaches, which Varda believes are the link to the past since beaches never change much. Very often she builds visual, cinematic parallels to the past, and each of these somehow leads to a moment of life, or truth. Sometimes she even walks backward on camera, to visually demonstrate that she is retreating to the past.

It's all very cute, and it helps that Varda is such an adorable intellectual; she makes you want to sit at her feet and listen to her stories for hours. Otherwise, she shows clips of most of her major movies (including Gleaners) and speaks to friends like Chris Marker (who is disguised as a giant cat). We also see outtakes and other clips, like Varda's test footage of Harrison Ford.

Eventually it all comes down to a tribute to Varda's husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy, whom Varda adored and still misses (he passed away in 1990). Nearly any film about -- and featuring -- Varda would be interesting, but since Varda continues to try and make connections between life and art, and leaves them in even if they fizzle, The Beaches of Agnes is constantly alive.

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