When world-class writers get to the last fifth or so of their career trajectory, after having put in four or more decades building their monuments, they often give themselves permission to write a memoir, a summing up, an attempt to gaze back and figure out how life and art have fought and entangled and rhymed over the lifetime. As they should.
Filmmakers rarely do this, and it’s a pity — what we wouldn’t have done for an autumnal self-examination from Luis Buñuel (we got a book, but not a film) or Orson Welles, and consider how lucky we’d be today if Jacques Rivette or Werner Herzog decided to venture backwards this way, inspecting the weave of creativity, history, personal tumult and movie love.
Chris Marker, of course, has been doing this all along, albeit rather impersonally, and his distinct approach may’ve ultimately been what compelled his pal and compatriot Agnès Varda, past her 50th year of moviemaking, to create “The Beaches of Agnès,” which is nothing if not a swan song. (The DVD box says “from the director of ‘The Gleaners & I’ and ‘Cléo from 9 to 5,'” briskly evoking a span of 40 solid years.) The one major woman filmmaker at work in the French New Wave, Varda has been for ages a sturdy, generous and astute female sensibility in a messy film culture usually overtaken with masculine whim, simultaneously embracing and feministically angry, and watching this new film, as with “The Gleaners & I,” is quite like contemplating the world over wine with an anarchist aunt.
We’re all better for having had Varda present and busy on the cultural stage, even if we don’t know it — her brand of savvy, maternal humanity helped season and sweeten the discourse, which she has engaged in as a documentarian, short-film dynamo, photographer and installation artist as well. The new movie is an unabashedly octogenarian reverie, in which Varda daytrips through her life, accompanied by hordes of friends and family, trapeze artists, actors playing out scenes from her life (there are a half-dozen or more little Agnèses), beachcombers, cats, potatoes, Chris Marker’s cartoon cat avatar (as per usual, Marker does not put himself on camera, but we do get a vintage photo, stepping off a motorcycle in a leather jacket), and so on.
I’m not so doped on nostalgia that Varda’s cuddly-elderly dancing across beach sand or walking backwards away from the camera through crowds seems like art to me, but it is, as she says, “a game,” an exploratory jaunt, a thoroughly unpretentious sport that tests cinema’s capacities as a memory machine. If, at times, Varda seems to be indulging herself, practically winking at the camera, you can hardly blame her, and, anyway, the entire thrust of New Wave thinking demanded that movies be as free and impulsive and elusive as life. In this case, it’s an 80-year-old’s life. If you’re smart, you’d step up with a measure of respect and patience, and come away with armloads of stuff as a result.
That stuff is dominated by a rueful contemplation of time and aging, and of the necessity for the artist to relentlessly build his or her own life, and by the memory of Varda’s husband Jacques Demy, who died in 1990 and with whom she shared her best years making movies and growing a family (two activities that Varda heroically conjoined).
Along the way, we get Alexander Calder, Jean-Luc Godard (sans glasses!), Alain Resnais, Jim Morrison, Viva (nude, in Varda’s “Lions Love”), Jane Birkin and Laura Betti doing Laurel & Hardy, tons of film clips (from both Demy’s and Varda’s filmographies), the story of the making of “Jacquot” (still Varda’s best movie) with Demy as he was slowly dying of AIDS, children and grandchildren, graveside eulogies, etc. It’s less a movie than a warm little nugget of life-stuff in your hand, and by the end, you feel as though you’ve made a friend.