The French New Wave was a boys' club, except for the actress Jeanne Moreau and a few others like her -- and for Agnès Varda, whose seminal film, Cleo from 5 to 7, still resonates today with the beautiful melancholy of Paris, captured through her inquisitive (and intrusive) camera eye.
Varda is an atom: small and compact, with positive and negative things swirling around inside her in equal measures and in perfect balance, but with the power to explode. She's 81 now, the age at which great old artists write autobiographies. Not Varda: She's filmed hers, and in The Beaches of Agnès, she recalls a life as a creative person and as the wife of Jacques Demy, another New Wave progenitor (although considerably less remembered today than the late Truffaut and lingering Godard).
"I'm playing the role of a little old lady, pleasant and plump, telling my life story," Varda says when her movie opens. She's walking backward (a metaphor), the North Sea surf lapping and foaming behind her, with whining strings on the soundtrack. Soon her young crew enters the picture, and she directs them to set up some objects, many of them mirrors (metaphor again) that double and triple the images of her.
She was raised in Brussels, one of five children, and the family moved to Paris in 1940, where she continued to grow up, watching Jewish families -- Jewish children -- being taken away before she understood why. (She later made a film about those Jews and the people who sheltered them.) At 20, she took a course in photography, and found her professional life's path. She met Demy in 1958.
Varda tells her story with every tool at her disposal: old film and photos, recreations of the past, clips from her canon, interviews with childhood friends now grown very old. Her voiceover narration is lean and thoughtful, but when she addresses the camera directly, with an insight or an anecdote, it feels like she's talking only to you.
Even the best-written autobiographies teeter on the brink of self-indulgence, so you can imagine how this tendency might threaten one done on film, where the eponymous subject isn't just talking. Decide for yourself whether Varda crosses that line (or crosses it too often). During a passage in which she reflects on dead friends, she walks along a row of photographs that she took of them, tossing memorial rose petals beneath the images as a camera crew films a camera crew watching her do it.
And then: "All the dead lead me back to Jacques," she says, her voice faintly trembling, as she remembers her mortal beloved, who died of AIDS in 1990, and who was her husband for 28 years. "Every tear, every flower, every rose, every begonia is a flower for Jacques. He is the most cherished of the dead."
It's an extraordinary moment, a transition into the passage in her film where she begins to recall the love affair with the father of her two children. This is skillful storytelling and filmmaking, as fine an example of the delicate balance of Varda's oeuvre as you're likely to find.
When Demy made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Hollywood courted him, so he and Varda moved for a while to Los Angeles, where she was immediately seduced by the hippies, feminists and Black Panthers. Demy auditioned a young actor named Harrison Ford, but a studio head told him to forget the guy. (Ford, in a cameo, recalls the incident.)
Varda soon made Lions Love, a free-spirited Flower Power-esque drama that features the nude frolicking Gerome Ragni and James Rado (they soon wrote Hair with Galt MacDermot), and the Warhol icon Viva (with Jim Morrison as himself). A decade later, she returned to Los Angeles to make Mur Murs, her documentary about the dazzling murals (many now gone) that decorate the city's outdoor wallscapes.
This film career emerged almost by accident; Varda remembers "wanting words" to accompany her images. She never attended film school: "I used my imagination and took the plunge." And she recalls of this time in her life, "I had a problem to solve: How to enter the world of men, who frightened and intimidated me." She never tells us how she solved it. We just see that she did.
In the course of reconstructing her film career, Varda shares snippet memories of the New Wave artists who became famous along with her: Deneuve, Noiret, Piccoli, Resnais, Legrand, Truffaut, Birkin and her friend Godard, whose work she favors, and who allowed her to photograph him without his sunglasses. Strangely, though, there's not a mention of Moreau, the most famous woman of the New Wave, so one senses a story untold.
Early in The Beaches of Agnès, Varda tells us that she's not nostalgic for the past -- she just likes looking at old photographs, and we believe her. We see her in black-and-white stills, as a child. But then, in moving color, she's suddenly young again, playing with her sister on the beach. Varda enters the frame, stands beside her fictional younger self, and reflects: "I don't know what it means to recreate a scene like this. Do we relive the moment? For me it's cinema, it's a game."
For us, too -- and one, like its protagonist, that never grows old. In English and French, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., Dec. 11. Regent Square