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Movie Review

The Beaches of Agnès

A filmmaker’s magical seaside reveries

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 2, 2009

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In “The Beaches of Agnès,’’ the effervescent 81-year-old French filmmaker Agnès Varda walks us through the story of her life. But rather than simply give us a guided tour, she explains that, “If you opened me up, you’d find beaches.’’ And so her film is set on her most formative shores, including the Belgian stretch of the North Sea where she grew up, the Mediterranean French town of Sète, and the Venice of Southern California.

This is a whimsical journey; while most of the beaches are natural, some Varda concocts, like the one she makes on a small Parisian street where, for an afternoon, her production company conducts its office business. (And, yes, that’s Varda at the Venice Biennale , dressed as a potato). But the movie is also more extraordinary than a mere scenic slideshow. Chronology imposes order on Varda’s life, but really, anything goes.

Photographs come alive through reenactments. By the sea, she and her crew make an installation of mirrors - in frames, on easels, buried under the sand. They’re an obvious symbol of reflection, but they create dazzling images, too. Dressed in variations on the magenta sundress that usually matches the pageboy haircut she’s worn for decades, Varda recalls her childhood, her adulthood, her politics, and how both her films and her two children were born. She doesn’t just show us, she takes us inside of it all, inside of her. It’s a reverie.

The line that cordons off events from each other has been gleefully erased so that the clips from her films - “La Pointe Courte,’’ “Vagabond,’’ “The Gleaners and I,’’ to name a few - feel indistinguishable from everything else. It’s all a movie to Varda. Actually, it’s an active combination of diorama and film: an emotional version of cinerama, in which movies are everywhere and everything.

But the movie that reconstitutes these living memories is all the more remarkable for the candor of the woman behind it. Lounging in the ornately decorated belly of a giant prop whale built on the sand, Varda says that as a young woman she needed to find that special man to whom she could give her virginity. She mentions marching for women’s rights, and there’s a montage of various demonstrations that fits elegantly alongside images from 1985’s “Vagabond,’’ her masterpiece about a young woman who refused to conform to any idea of a fixed life.

Varda allows herself to be interviewed by her friend and fellow great director Chris Marker, a notoriously camera-shy fellow. Here he’s represented as a cartoon cutout of the cat which his own recent movies have been fixated. He speaks in the sort of digitally distorted voice that certain witnesses require when talking to “60 Minutes.’’

At a museum, she drops roses and begonias beneath life-size photographs of her dead performer friends and her late husband, the director Jacques Demy. The pictures and clips and people and anecdotes become coordinates on the map of her life. While she’s reclining in the belly of that whale, she mentions the great parlor game, Exquisite Corpse, in which words or images are collectively built into a narrative. It’s a group story. Varda’s filmmaking has been a version of that game, creating art out of stories that other people have started, most epically with her look at Demy’s own upbringing in 1991’s “Jacquot de Nantes.’’

Watching her mourn for him, discuss his death of AIDS, rejoice in their long, complicated marriage, you realize that this old woman is not old at all. She hasn’t come to us to impart a wise lesson about how to live. She hasn’t figured out for herself yet. Instead, “The Beaches of Agnès’’ celebrates her time with her good pals, her children and grandkids, and some very important ghosts.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

THE BEACHES OF AGNÈS Directed by: Agnès Varda

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 107 minutes

In French, with subtitles

Unrated

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