Film Review: The Beaches of Agnes

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Vienna International Film Festival

VIENNA -- It's surprisingly rare for directors to make retrospective documentaries on their own artistic careers, but if Agnes Varda's "The Beaches of Agnes" is any guide more should consider doing so.

A genuinely playful wander down memory-lane by one of France's most revered film-makers, it's sufficiently erudite and extract-packed to satisfy cinephiles but also accessible to those for whom her name rings only vague bells. She is, of course, the auteur behind 1962's "Cleo from 5 to 7," 1985's "Vagabond" and 2001's "The Gleaners and I." Festival screenings are a given and this freewheeling cine-memoir could also do nice arthouse business in many territories.

Made to coincide with 2007's 80th birthday for Belgian-born, half-Greek photographer/director Varda -- here a genially wise, slightly batty kind of bohemian granny, who's seldom off-screen for long -- "The Beaches of Agnes" ("Les plages d'Agnes") neither presumes foreknowledge of its subjects nor bogs down in excessive info about the artistic notables on view. Instead it nimbly treads a path between these hazards, just as the ever-sprightly Varda herself is seen wandering along the shoreline on the various beaches that are central to many of her reveries.

Elfin and perpetually bob-haired, she's terrific company as she "walks backwards" through her colorfully well-traveled life, along the way pausing to discuss friends and collaborators -- a starry bunch including Gerard Depardieu, Alexander Calder, Harrison Ford and Jim Morrison. Much time is devoted to key figures of the French New Wave (Godard, Truffaut, etc), the parallel Left Bank school to which Varda belonged along with Chris Marker, who amusingly 'appears' here in the form of a giant cartoon tomcat, and her beloved, much-missed filmmaker husband Jacques Demy.

Varda co-directed Demy's 1967 "Umbrellas of Cherbourg," and her 1990 tribute-doc "Jacquot de Nantes" was completed as Demy was dying of AIDS. Death is, indeed, a semi-constant presence here, but never in morbid or depressing fashion. The tone is defiantly bright and breezy despite the undercurrent of "bonjour, tristesse." Best of all, Varda shows no sign of slowing down as she strides nonchalantly, inspiringly, into her ninth decade.

Production company: Cine-Tamaris.
Director/screenwriter: Agnes Varda.
Producer: Agnes Varda.
Production designer: Franckie Diago.
Directors of photography: Alain Sakot, Helene Louvart, Arlene Nelson.
Music: Joanna Bruzdowicz, Stephane Vilar, Paule Cornet.
Editors: Jean-Baptiste Morin, Baptiste Filloux.
Sales Agent: Roissy Films, Paris.
No rating, 110 minutes.
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