IS there something about France — the diet, perhaps, or the health-care system — that accounts for the extraordinary creative longevity of so many of its filmmakers? A half-century after the New Wave crested and crashed ashore, a remarkable number of directors associated with that movement are still making movies. Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol are approaching 80, and while Mr. Godard appears to have slowed his pace a bit, Mr. Chabrol continues to produce sinister, elegant studies of passion and power at the rate of about one a year. Jacques Rivette, 81, and Eric Rohmer, who turned 89 this year, recently have made ambitious and well-regarded films, and Alain Resnais, now 87, was seen in Cannes last month flouting the red-carpet dress code, collecting a lifetime-achievement award and presenting his latest movie.
And then there is Agnès Varda, the only female filmmaker associated with the Nouvelle Vague at its high-water mark and now, at 81, an artist of undiminished vigor, curiosity and intelligence. That is certainly how she appears in “The Beaches of Agnès,” her latest film, which opens in New York on Wednesday, after winning a César (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for best documentary feature in February. Conceived as Ms. Varda’s 80th birthday approached, “Beaches” is a cinematic memoir in two senses: an autobiography rendered in carefully chosen, meaning-rich images and the account of a life lived in, through and for cinema.
There is an elegiac undercurrent to the film — visits to familiar places that have changed over the years, recollections of the dead — but it is not so much concerned with taking stock or summing up as it is with the restless exploration of memory. “I wanted to be like a bird,” Ms. Varda said in an interview one wintry morning in Manhattan a few months ago. “I wanted to be free in my memory, to go from one part to another and see what I would find.” An inveterate collector of odd images and curious ideas — her 2003 documentary, “The Gleaners and I,” is a personal and philosophical inquiry into the practice of gathering what has been discarded or passed over — Ms. Varda composed “Beaches” as a sort of living, moving collage.
The film includes an abundance of clips from her other films, and photographs capturing various journeys, projects and relationships, but it is less an archival exhibition than a wonder cabinet, full of whimsical inventions as well as recovered artifacts. The filmmaker Chris Marker, Ms. Varda’s “interlocutor,” appears in the guise of an orange cartoon cat with a digitally altered voice. There are dreamy montages, re-enactments and surrealist set pieces that demonstrate her continued interest in installation art and photography as well as film. The theme of the movie is beaches, and since Paris, where Ms. Varda has spent much of her working life, has none, she filled a street with sand and took the staff of her production company outside to sit at their desks in bathing suits.
The film sustains an unusual blend of gravity and playfulness, a mood at once ripe with experience and childlike in its capacity for wonder. “At one screening,” Ms. Varda said, “there was a young man, maybe 22-years-old, who said about this film: ‘It gives you the desire to grow old.’ ”
Ms. Varda has something of a complicated history with the question of age. When she was barely 30, a photo caption in a French magazine labeled her “an ancestor of the New Wave.” The title was bestowed in recognition of her first (and, at the time, her only) feature film, “La Pointe Courte,” whose modest means and restless aesthetic and intellectual ambitions anticipated the breakout films of François Truffaut, Mr. Godard and the rest by a good half-decade. “I thought, well, now that I am an ancestor, I don’t have to grow any older,” Ms. Varda has said, and the elfin, energetic figure she presents in her recent documentaries and in person is decidedly youthful, much as the unlined face that stares from the pages of the old Nouvelle Vague yearbook seems preternaturally wise.
As the sole woman in that charmed circle of young lions, Ms. Varda has taken on more than her share of symbolic roles: mother, sister, confidante, colleague and — literally in the case of Jacques Demy, a fellow director and her husband from 1962 until his death in 1990 — wife. Appearing on screen, in “Beaches” and “The Gleaners and I,” surrounded by much younger crew members and performers, she is an almost ideally grandmotherly presence, pre-empting the indignities of age with a self-mockery that subtracts nothing from her rigorous and skeptical intelligence.
A grandmother who, in telling stories about the old days, is more apt to charm — or even shock — the kids than to bore them. “Many young people love me,” she said, smiling at the forthrightness of the declaration. “Some of them call me Mamie Punk” — Granny Punk — “maybe because of the hair.” At the time her coiffure was a violet fringe surmounted by a tonsure of gray, a Rothkoesque variation on the Dutch Boy she wears, impervious to changes in style, in every era covered by “The Beaches of Agnès.”
But the nickname also acknowledges a key aspect of Ms. Varda’s personal and artistic style. Not quite the aggressive, nihilistic stance associated with punk rock, perhaps, but rather a kind of thrifty, skeptical anarchism of the spirit, a liberating willingness to find inspiration and even beauty in what might conventionally be dismissed as rough, ugly or commonplace.
“La Pointe Courte,” that great ancestral text, exemplifies this attitude, and affirms Ms. Varda’s position at the vanguard not only of the New Wave, but also of any filmmaking tendency worthy of the name independent. French cinema in 1954 was male dominated, hierarchical and rigidly bureaucratic, governed by an elaborate set of rules and protocols. An aspiring director was expected to jump through carefully placed and managed hoops of training, apprenticeship and credentialization. The idea that anyone could pick up a camera, gather a crew and just start shooting a film — it just was not done.
But that is just what Ms. Varda did. Trained as a photographer, she was, as she puts it now, almost entirely “innocent of cinema.” Unlike her soon-to-be confreres in the New Wave, who emerged from the hothouses of the Paris Cinémathèque and Cahiers du Cinéma, she was neither a critic nor even much of a film buff, having seen only a handful of movies when she decided to make her own. “I thought that pictures plus words, that was cinema,” she says at one point in an interview included on the Criterion DVD of “La Pointe Courte.” “It was only later that I discovered it was something else.”
“La Pointe Courte,” however, is anything but a naïve, literal-minded photographer’s foray into moviemaking. Its structure was suggested by “The Wild Palms,” William Faulkner’s novel composed of parallel stories told in alternating chapters. One thread of Ms. Varda’s film follows a married couple, played by Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret (in his first film role), as they discuss the ambiguous state of their love. Should they separate or not, and if so why? They pose these questions — and pose in striking, quasi-Cubist close-ups and de Chiricoesque wide compositions — in the alleys and streets of Sète, the Mediterranean port town whose working-class residents supply the other half of the narrative. These fishermen and their families, more or less playing themselves, grapple with death, work, marriage and the intrusions of health inspectors and other annoying agents of the state.
The contrast between the two halves of “La Pointe Courte” is characteristic of the tensions and complexities that flicker through nearly all of Ms. Varda’s feature films. Documentary flows into artifice, abstraction gives way to naturalism, and cinema is revealed to consist of the collision, be it serendipitous or unsettling, between the found and the made. The two “plots” converge at a jousting tournament in which local men perched on platforms atop elaborately decorated galleylike boats try to knock each other into the water with long poles. The jousting sequence collapses the distinction between documentary and performance in what might be described as a characteristically Vardaesque fashion. If this curious and ancient ritual did not exist, she might have invented it.
One of the dividends of “The Beaches of Agnès” is that Ms. Varda allows herself, and the audience, to peek behind the scenes, to learn something about her techniques and the sources of her inspiration. Some of these have been personal and geographical: Sète, so vivid in “La Pointe Courte,” was where her family took refuge during World War II after fleeing Belgium. Others are literary, artistic and political: the Surrealists, Picasso, the revolutions in China and Cuba and, above all, the rise of feminism in the West.
She pauses to point out some of the motifs and formal choices in her work: the clocks that mark the minutes in “Cléo From 5 to 7,” her 1962 real-time tour de force that follows a ravishing, anxious blonde through the silvery streets of Paris; the right-to-left tracking shots that link the vignettes in “Vagabond”; the re-enactments of scenes from Demy’s films in “Jacquot de Nantes” (1991), her loving portrait of her husband as a young man.
These movies confound easy description. (Four of the best and best known — “La Pointe Courte,” “Cléo,” “La Bonheur” and “Vagabond” — are available in an indispensable Criterion boxed set.) And Ms. Varda counts only “Vagabond,” in which Sandrine Bonnaire is heartbreaking and abrasive as a young woman adrift, as an unqualified success. It won the Golden Lion in Venice in 1985, a prize that, in “Beaches,” is placed in the sand of her homemade Parisian lido alongside Demy’s Palme d’Or for “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964). Not that she is disappointed. “I am the queen of the margins,” she said. “But the films are loved. The films are remembered. And this is my aim — to be loved as a filmmaker because I want to share emotions, to share the pleasure of being a filmmaker.”
It is a pleasure she shared for nearly 30 years with Demy, who haunts “The Beaches of Agnès” like a benevolent, enigmatic ghost. “The dearest of the dead,” she calls him, and the great love of her life. Their artistic sensibilities were not closely aligned — his stated ambition was to make “calm films, films about happiness” while her work bristles with a sense of contradiction — and the intimate details of their lives together, and of his illness and death at 59, are addressed with brevity and circumspection. The tone of the film is personal, but not confessional. It is more of an essay in memory than a memoir.And, as such, it is about the way memory intrudes into and colors the present-tense flow of experience, much as Ms. Varda’s cinema flows into the stream of everyday life. “Do I dream, or do I see a picture of Jacques Demy?” she asked at one point in our interview, which took place at the offices of Film Forum, in a room full of film stills and framed photographs of directors and stars. The one that caught her attention was at eye level, on the other side of the room. Had it been placed there on purpose, we wondered, like the tokens and talismans that find their way onto her beaches and into the frames of her films? It was, to use one of her favorite words, a puzzle. Solving it diffused some of the mystery — the picture, on closer inspection, was not of Demy after all — but did not dispel the curiosity that drives Ms. Varda to pause over details, impressions and moments. “I wonder who it is?” she said.