Agnes Varda is a pivotal member of the French New Wave, a cinematic movement which took place in the late 50s and early 60s, spearheaded by filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. The Beaches of Agnes is her. memory documentary on her life, personally and creatively. A cinematic autobiography, if you will.
Its title comes from something she says very early on (on a beach), “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes. If we opened me up, we’d find beaches.” Throughout the film she changes form countless times, sometimes using found footage, sometimes hiring actors to recreate scenarios from her life, but returning to various beaches is a recurring theme throughout.
This is a difficult film to comment on, as not only is the content extremely personal (and so it should be, given its subject matter), the means by which Varda communicates this content is equally personal. The viewing and appreciation of art of any kind is subjective by nature, but when in the process of artistic and creative impulse, the devising and creation of art is equally, if not more subjective. It is obvious from Varda’s form and installation art, which is often referenced throughout the film, that it has been a long time since she has compromised her artistic vision for anyone. This film, indeed, was released through her own production company. This is her own film, her own complete vision, and as such is something completely and totally individual and unique.
The film plays loose with the chronology of her life, generally keeping fairly linear but moving in and out of this at times. The loose structure and wildly variant visual devices used by Varda serve to present this film as an insight into not only what she remembers of her life, but how she remembers the various stages. How she sees and understands other people, for instance, is not only something she discusses, it is something she visually displays. She replaces Chris Marker with a giant orange cartoon cat, she introduces her assistants via an inventive mirror display, she introduces her children’s families in head to toe white clothing with her dressed in all black. To say there is any specific meaning behind any of these choices would be simultaneously trivialising and overthinking the imagery. The images she conveys throughout the film are an attempt to communicate nothing else than how she understands the people, places, and times of her life.
Varda is aided by her great courage and experience as a director, navigating through her memories in an effortlessly cohesive and interesting sequence that bring to life her vision and give the viewer an insight into not only her thought process, but her artistic and creative processes as well.
To say if this is a good or a bad film is less relevant in this context than whether or not it’s effective. Varda’s whims and creative impulses might not appeal to everyone in the same way you might not like anchovies, or you might find it hard to get on with the new guy at work, but her communication of her life experience and the lens through which she sees the world is certainly an effective and immersive one which is a must see for fans of her new work and the new wave, and most definitely an interesting couple of hours for everyone else.