Agnès Varda manages to be full of herself without seeming … full of herself. Perhaps that’s because her self is full of so much other stuff: friends, photos, films, buildings, and beaches. The Beaches of Agnès is a cinematic reverie, a prowl among the signifiers of a life lived behind and in front of the lens, with lots of complementary chatter. It’s not as elegant as The Gleaners and I, her gorgeous ode to fellow compulsive clutterbugs. But it’s so profoundly goofy you forgive it everything, like the opening on a beach in which young people arrange mirrors and screens to set up the idea of the film as … a series of mirrors inside screens; or her toddling backward through places she once lived because she’s … going backward in time; or her filming people filming her to remind you this is … a film. Round and ebullient in her eighties, she’s unquenchably expansive, more so than in her youth, and she’s canny too: The bric-a-brac forms an organic whole, bound together by her delight.
The eponymous beaches are meant to evoke her inner world, from Sète, France, to Venice, California, but Varda doesn’t seem like a solitary, gazing-at-the-ocean soul. This is more like The Flea Markets of Agnès. She roams the stalls with friends, poring over photos and images. Early on, she says her childhood is “not a reference point,” and that makes sense: She wasn’t behind the lens. Her imaginative life began with collecting people, many of them legendary: Jean Vilar, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, and, of course, her husband, Jacques Demy, whose life she captured on film as he was dying of aids. The bizarre genius Chris Marker shows up in The Beaches of Agnès, more or less: His image is replaced by the cartoon of a cat and his voice distorted to sound like an adenoidal robot—another bit of whimsy that somehow fits. Scenes from Varda’s fictional films both chart her artistic development and confirm how smart she was to shift to personal documentaries.
One job of memoir is to show the world through another’s eyes and inspire you to live more alertly, and that is the glory of The Beaches of Agnès. Her art is her omnivorousness. Near the end, she presents her children and their children: “I don’t know if I understand them,” she admits. “I just go toward them.” With love, she might have added, and a lens, as if to say, “Light, light against the dying of the light.”
Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton did a sterling job of adapting Dangerous Liaisons, which centered on men and women who plotted their seductions with the steeliness of generals—until emotion undid them. They’ve attempted the same sort of thing with Cheri, based on stories and two novels by Colette about the unanticipated true love of a wealthy, aging ex-courtesan for her passive, petulant boy toy—after he marries someone else. But their Cheri dies a little before it’s even out of the gate, when the scene is set by an ironic British male narrator. Sacre bleu! Colette, who never resolved the conflict between romantic longing and cold egotism and dramatized the schism as lucidly as anyone, deserved less stiffness and more intimacy, not to mention heat. Michelle Pfeiffer is brittle in a way that’s not especially French, but she’s poignant and very lovely. Rupert Friend, on the other hand, is difficult to warm up to, especially with his features hidden behind all that hair. It’s not a good sign when you have to take the movie’s word for it that the lovers at its center are really, really into each other.