When I first saw The Beaches of Agnès back in 2011, I wrote that the world would be a poorer place when Agnès Varda was no longer in it. Since Varda’s death at the end of March – two months shy of her 91st birthday – this prediction has undoubtedly come to pass, but considering she left behind dozens of features, shorts, and documentaries covering all manner of subjects, I have no doubt film scholars and lovers alike will be discovering and dissecting her body of work for decades to come.
Completed in 2008 (the year Varda turned 80), The Beaches of Agnès is a cinematic self-portrait of a singular talent who turned her eye for photography into a passion for the art of filmmaking. A woman working in a man’s field (or what men traditionally thought of as their domain), Varda made her first feature, 1955’s La Pointe Courte, several years before her contemporaries in the French New Wave, but it was her second, 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7, that established her as a director to be reckoned with. That was also the only film of hers that I’d seen prior to The Beaches of Agnès, but watching the documentary made me anxious to see more.
If I had to pick one word to describe The Beaches of Agnès, it would be “whimsical” (which also describes the Oscar-nominated Faces Places, which Varda co-directed in 2017 with French photographer JR). How else to approach a film that opens with its director setting up a menagerie of mirrors on the beach to capture images of the ocean as the tide comes in and closes with her building a celluloid house out of prints of one of her flops? If I were allowed two, though, I would have to add “heartbreaking,” especially when Varda deals with the memories of her husband Jacques Demy, who died in 1990. Thankfully, she carried on, producing some of her most creative work in the decades that followed, with each new project reminding viewers that one of Varda’s most vibrant and inspiring subjects has long been herself.