Agnés Varda’s idiosyncratic cine-autobiography The Beaches of Agnés (Les Plages d’Agnés) (2008) is a total pleasure. I’ve admired and enjoyed the few fiction films by Varda that I’ve seen - Cleo de 5 a 7 (1961), in particular - but her documentaries, from Jacquot de Nantes (1990) about her husband, Jacques Demy, to the entrancing The Gleaners and I (2000) have a special delight and fascination. Aged 80 now, Varda continues to make movies with what can only be described as unfettered glee. The new film ranges over episodes from her childhood in Brussels to the present-day, and its collage structure is somewhat reminiscent of Jacquot's, with Varda using a mixture of clips, interviews, tableaux and stylised recreations to re-construct her life-story. But the new film is ultimately a much more digressive, experimental work than was Jacquot de Nantes. If I tell you that it features director Chris Marker in the guise of an animated cat, well, then you get an idea of the eccentricity of Varda’s methods here.
“I’m playing the role of a little old lady,” Varda announces early on and “play” is clearly central to her concept of cinema. Yet the array of stylistic tricks that she employs throughout The Beaches of Agnés never become wearisome. There’s a marvellous lightness of touch to her approach throughout, and the movie can suddenly turn lyrical, poignant and profound. I loved her recollections of being in the US in the 1960s - where she made a film about the Black Panthers and encountered Jim Morrison - and her musing on Demy’s death is very moving. This could feel like a solipsistic exercise, and yet it’s one of the movie’s great paradoxes that, by focusing so closely on herself, Varda has created a bracingly inclusive film. The Beaches of Agnés is a meditation on memory, on art, on collaboration, on life itself. Like much of Varda’s work, it sharpens the viewer’s perception of the world, heightening awareness of what can be noticed, appreciated and - ultimately - loved within it.
Note: The Beaches of Agnés also has the distinction of being the most innocuous film in history to have an 18 certificate slapped on it, due to a brief shot of an erect penis in a sequence in which a Magritte painting is recreated. What madness!