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Reviews - The Beaches Of Agnes

The Beaches Of Agnes

Reviewed By John Stakes

The Beaches Of Agnes
The Beaches Of Agnes
For anyone other than a committed film buff last Sunday’s film could have prompted a movie-goer to ask who is Agnes Varda? Why should she make a film about herself, and who else would be interested in the ramblings of this Belgian octogenarian photographer apart perhaps from her immediate family?
But if anyone felt deterred from venturing out to seek answers to these questions they would have missed one of the most delightful and inventive personal documentaries of recent years.
Born Arlette Varda in 1928 in Brussels of a French mother and a father who was a Greek refugee from Asia Minor, Agnes Varda was perhaps destined to have something other than an uneventful life. As the third of five children she always felt herself to be a free and independent spirit. Following the outbreak of WW2 her family moved to the South of France, but it was as a student in Paris where Agnes studied Art History and was later appointed a photographer for the Theatre National Populaire that her love of cinema was born. For Agnes the world became a film set; reality meant nothing to her she told us. She took her camera everywhere. All her films were intensely personal being drawn from her own experiences and their capture on film came to mean far more to her than the reality of the experience itself.
It was hardly surprising therefore that in seeking to record her life spanning eight decades Agnes would turn to her trusty camera but not in any prosaic sense: quite the opposite. She set up a location camp on a much loved beach which she bedecked with mirrors and proceeded to re-enact her life by intermixing actual scenes from her films (in which in true Hitchcockian manner she often appeared) and restaging others to flesh out her thoughts. She visited some of the villagers who had featured in her films and even reconstructed some of the events of her early life using a child actor to play herself. She scripted and articulated her own voice-over commentaries on her life and revealed the depth of her artistic talents and love of people.
And what a colourful life she had led. We met some of the great names in French cinema. She gave Gerard Depardieu his first acting role. Catherine Deneuve was seen at her most ravishing and Jane Birkin turned up in a variety of outfits from Laurel and Hardy to Joan of Arc. After Agnes and her director husband Jacques Demy moved to the USA in the late 1960s she became involved in the peace rallies and later Beverley Hills society intermingling with the likes of Andy Warhol and Jim Morrison and filming her contemporaries including Harrison Ford who told her on camera that he had been advised against an acting career. Following the death of her husband from Aids in 1990 Agnes returned to France and renewed her own film-making and interest in photography. Her artistry was no better exemplified than in her transformation of a dingy Parisian back yard and alleyway into a plant festooned courtyard.
Agnes’s quirky observations on her life were peppered with jovial, impish and genial quips as she sailed towards, mingled with, and observed a kaleidoscope of jousters, acrobats, fishermen, artists and cats. She remained brimming with life throughout but never in that cloyingly overbearing way so often found within the circles she came to move in and she never attempted to massage her own ego or expect others to. It proved a delight to be in her company and every film lover should wish her to be their grandmother
The Beaches of Agnes gained the 2009 Cesar Award at the French equivalent of Oscar night for Best Documentary which it richly deserved and an enthusiastic Keswick audience found it as effervescent as a glass of champagne.

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