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‘Beaches of Agnès’ love letter to life, cinema

Film legand Varda's screen autobiography is the sort of documentary that inspires you to pursue art, love and friendship while looking forward to senior citizenship with anticipation.
/ Source: contributor

After seeing “The Gleaners & I,” director Agnès Varda’s superb first-person documentary about people who “glean” everything from unharvested produce to images and stories, a friend of mine noted, without irony, that he wanted Varda to be his grandmother.

And now comes “The Beaches of Agnès,” a movie that’s perhaps most comparable to a day spent with a beloved grand-mère telling you her life story.

The result is the sort of documentary that inspires you to pursue art, love and friendship while looking forward to senior citizenship with anticipation.

The seaside has been a recurrent motif in Varda’s life, so she begins her tale on a beach, surrounded by mirrors. Over the course of the movie, she takes us to the shore in Belgium, where she was born; to a boat in France where she and her family lived under the Vichy regime during World War II; to her initial triumph as a filmmaker at the Cannes Film Festival with her 1962 New Wave classic “Cléo from 5 to 7”; and a stint in hippie Hollywood in the late 1960s with her husband, fellow filmmaking legend Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”).

Along the way, we see her fall in love first with photography and then with filmmaking, as she returns to the locations where she shot her first films and talks with townsfolk who played bit parts.

Varda introduces us to her children, and shows us how they grew up in front of the camera. (Her daughter Rosalie Varda plays Catherine Deneuve’s child at the heartbreaking climax of “Cherbourg,” and her son Mathieu Demy has appeared in many French films, including his mother’s “Kung-fu Master!” and “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t.”)

It’s an exhilarating journey, including trips to China and Cuba and social activism in France (where Varda campaigned for abortion rights for women) and the U.S. (Harrison Ford and Jim Morrison, among others, also pop up along the way, but you’ll have to see the film to find out why.)

She also opens up about the tragic demise of Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS complications in 1990, a time in which the disease was still very much a taboo in France. As his health failed, Varda directed the sublime “Jacquot,” which told the story of his early years and inspirations.

What’s great about “The Beaches of Agnès” is that you don’t necessarily have to know anything about Varda or about French cinema to be thoroughly engaged.

Once you’ve reached the age of 80, as Varda did during shooting, you’ve generally got lots of stories to tell, and Varda is nothing if not one of the world’s great storytellers.

Society so often implicitly tells us that once you’ve hit a certain age, it’s just a question of waiting for the undertaker, so it’s exciting to have someone with Varda’s energy and creativity continuing to make provocative and inspirational art as she enters her ninth decade on the planet.

With each frame of “The Beaches of Agnès,” she seems to be prescribing a recipe for a fruitful old age: Surround yourself with friends and family, enjoy what you do with your life and always find a way to keep doing it. And if you’re as lucky as Varda, you’ll keep doing it exceptionally.

Follow Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at .