“I’m playing the role of a little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative, telling her life story. … Yet it is others who motivate me. … If we opened up people, we’d find landscapes … we’d find beaches.”
French filmmaker Agnès Varda introducing her film to us tonight on PBS.
Movie Review: Documentary film “Beaches of Agnès”
FOR DECADES, MOVIE LOVERS AROUND THE WORLD have been intrigued by Agnès Varda, the only woman to muscle her way into the French New Wave that made directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard famous. Varda’s relatively few films often were described with words like “tough,” “acid” and “journalistic.” Her most famous film, “Cleo from 5 to 7,” seems like a self-indulgent slice of a vain young French woman’s chaotic life—until theatergoers ponder the underlying significance of the story. At 7 p.m., Cleo has a appointment to learn the results of a medical test for cancer. Countless men had their eyes opened by this potent dose of a woman’s life.
Varda never became a household name in the U.S. But generations of university students encountered Varda, usually introduced as a stubborn, prophetic voice for a woman’s point of view on the silver screen—years before women were taken seriously in Hollywood. In fact, she’s often refered to now as having been New Wave even before the male directors knew there was a “New Wave.”
Of course, many of us still doubt that American media gives women equal creative footing with men. Now at age 82, Varda’s tough, acid, journalistic voice is moving in an entirely new direction that needs some serious artistic activism. She’s still making movies. She’s still a feminist. But, now, her vocation seems to be focused on the process of aging. Even if this is the first moment you’ve encountered her name, it’s worth tuning in PBS’ POV (Point of View) documentary series’ debut tonight of “The Beaches of Agnes.” (Click here to visit the PBS website and check local TV listings.)
In the opening scenes of this documentary, Varda putters around the seaside, arranging mirrors on a beach. This all looks rather cumbersome and silly, perhaps like the appearance of an elderly person making their way slowly and awkwardly into a room for the first time. Then, we see tricks she achieves with her mirrors—and soon she’s spinning tale after tale from her childhood in the 1930s through World War II and beyond.
She is celebrating much more than her own life—as the opening quote indicates. She’s celebrating storytelling itself and she’s illustrating this through stories that continually surprise and move us. There are moments in this mature film when your eyes will pop. I guarantee that you won’t like all of the little tales she tells. But, if you watch and listen closely, you’ll discover that Varda is showing us something distinctive about the way women preserve and tell stories.
I don’t want to spoil the film, but one scene involves a visit to a childhood home where she lived as a little girl in the 1930s. The current owner of the house is a polite but rather boorish gentleman who insists, when she shows up with her camera, that he knows what will truly interest her viewers: antique model trains. As a one-time collector of miniature trains myself, I laughed out loud through that scene. This fellow thrusts one train after another in front of her cameras, certain that this is the story that will fascinate the world.
But, Varda figures out a way to pull us aside and explain that something else is truly important here. She wants to show us, instead, the places where deep memories arose in that house. She shows us the exact place where her mother stood and wept when she learned about the death of a beloved queen in the 1930s. And, she tells us how her sisters’ beds were arranged so they could share this cramped space—and share their lives.
What’s worth remembering in life? Not objects valued in museum catalogs, Varda insists, but memories of relationships that span our lives.
As all of us age, may we become storytellers like Agnès Varda!
ENJOY OUR ENTIRE GREAT SUMMER READING AND VIEWING SERIES: (Our series so far: “Crown of Aleppo,” “Science Vs. Religion,” “Belief,” “Apparition,” “Burma VJ,” “Facets World Cup,” “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth” “The Lonely Polygamist,” “Rise and Shine,” “Saints” and “Mystically Wired.”)
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