Friday, March 5, 2010

Released Tuesday on DVD: "The Beaches of Agnes"


Grade: A

In her wonderful 2000 movie The Gleaners and I, the French director Agnes Varda takes a nonfiction ramble through the world of everyday treasure hunting in urban markets where the poor pick through the leftover lettuce and in trash bins where throwaway people forage for thrown-away sustenance. Wielding a small digital video camera that now feels like an extension of her body, Varda made a case for gleaning as a philosophy of life, as a way of seeing and being in the world in which remnants — food, yes, but also old toys and other such poignant castoffs — are cherished and used rather than carelessly discarded.

In her latest, the similarly glorious and generous The Beaches of Agnes, Varda has created something of a sequel to The Gleaners and I. Much like that earlier work, it is at once an illustration of the fine art of foraging and an autobiographical portrait, narrated by its self-described "little old lady, pleasantly plump." (She’s now 81.) As before, Varda is picking through the world, close to home and far afield, finding images that please her and give her pause, like her wrinkled hand, the one not holding the camera, that she scrutinizes with rue if no obvious regret. But here the emphasis is on her own life and the images and memories that, with time, have blurred together.

The images are as delightful, unexpected and playfully uninhibited as Varda, perhaps the only filmmaker who has both won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and strolled around an art exhibit while costumed as a potato (not at the same time). Born in 1928, she started as a photographer, directing her first feature, La Pointe-Courte, in 1954 when most of the French New Wave directors were still dreaming of cinema rather than making it. Often singled out as the movement’s only woman, she cast Jean-Luc Godard as a silent clown in her second feature, Cleo from 5 to 7, but is mainly associated with the Left Bank group and her friends and occasional colleagues Chris Marker and Alain Resnais.

Though she flashes a tantalizingly rare photograph of Marker onscreen, half-on or half-off a motorcycle and wearing goggles, she also makes great, often hilarious use of her camera-shy friend's eccentricities. Autobiographies can be limned by the company you have kept, which in Varda’s case includes a rather remarkable and divergent group, from Marker to Harrison Ford and the gauzy eroticist Zalman King. Ford, standing in a wintry landscape, and King, sitting in a summery one, make brief, affectionate appearances. Marker, by contrast, rather more memorably, appears in the guise of his talisman, an orange tabby named Guillaume-en-Egypte, represented here by a cartoon cat with an electronically obscured voice who rolls his eyes at the puckish Varda.

Humor seems to buoy her. Her jokes and moments of visual burlesque might prove startling to those who only best remember her for One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, a 1977 fiction about two friends set against the backdrop of the women’s rights movement, or Vagabond, a critically acclaimed 1985 drama about the death of a young woman, which won her the Golden Lion. Her feminism, which now seems part of the air she breathes, a given rather than a cause, probably helped steel her against the industry’s sexism. (She quit one project after a producer pinched her and, she says, insult to injury, wouldn’t give her final cut.) But she seems to have drawn strength most deeply from her family, specifically her husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy, who died in 1990.

His name still brings tears to her eyes. Seen intermittently throughout the movie in still photographs and archival footage, he comes across less like a ghostly presence and more like a constant companion. Though she doesn’t give you access to their private affairs, eliding the brute fact that he died from complications from AIDS, she does something far more precious and seemingly perilous: she lets you into her feelings, to the pleasure she derived from his company and the pain she still feels from his death. She shares Demy unselfishly with the audience, and with the same generosity and tenderness that characterizes her fictional film about him, Jacquot (1991). (He’s a favorite subject: she also made the 1995 tribute The Universe of Jacques Demy.)

Still, I’m glad Varda reserves most of the room in this movie for her own story. It’s a remarkable history, rich in comedy and occasionally heartbreaking, filled with wise reflections and strange digressions about the wonders of life. It’s a life she has come close to perfecting, I think, mostly by keeping her mind as blissfully and enduringly open as her round eyes.

At one point, she says she thinks of all men who look at the sea as Ulysses (she’s an aquatic soul), but she’s every bit the wanderer. Whether she’s roving a beach with a camera or rummaging through flea markets, she seeks and finds, gleaning — the word means to collect and examine — what this world of wonders has in store.

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