Most people, when they want to tell their life story, decide to write a book. Not Agnes Varda. The so-called "grandmother of the New Wave" has always done things her own way and it has been a feature of her life and career that the result is nearly always inimitable. Of course, it makes perfect sense that someone famous because of their visual work, as a photographer and then as the director of such classics as the 1962 Cleo from 5 to 7 and Le Bonheur (1965), should decide to tell her life story by making a film.
The movie, The Beaches of Agnes, shows how even in her octogenarian years, she has not lost her eye for the beautiful or a sense of how to tell a story. Varda revisits the various beaches that she has come across in her eclectic life. The picture opens with a fabulous palette of orange and blue in Belgium, the country in which Varda was born in 1928. Other beaches include one in the South of France and another in Los Angeles, where she speaks in fascinating detail about her long marriage to Jacques Demy.
She says in the film that if you were to open her up, one would find a beach inside. "I know of no landscape as beautiful as the line between the sky and the ocean," she says, speaking on yet another beach on the Lido in Venice. "This is the perfect landscape. It isn't always peaceful, but for me it's the perfect place to contemplate and dream and let the imagination go." What is great about the way she tells her life story is the modesty she displays and the ability to build a narrative, starting with her recounting her life in Brussels before the war, that is a story that could be told by thousands of others.
What makes her special is how this story developed, and made her one of the most iconic personalities in film. "Sometimes I ask myself, does it make sense?" she says. "I do good documentaries; I deal well with other people. I'm interested in other people. I am curious. So I added other people in the film because I know the strength of that." The documentaries she has made include the fascinating The Black Panthers about a rally in support of the political firebrand Huey P Newton and the supreme essay on French provincial life The Gleaners and I. Michael Moore could learn a few lessons from Varda in how to incorporate one's own life into an argument without it grating on the audience. The list of people she has met and worked with reads like a who's who of cinema.
Amazingly she uses her friends to try to downplay her own unique life. "I remain very modest because my life is not so special. I worked a lot and met a lot of people, but nothing dramatic happened besides Jacques's death. "There are people who came back from concentration camps who had suffered so much; people in Bosnia, today in Georgia - if you get up and open the newspaper, you just want to cry and go back to bed. So I know I have been very protected in a way. But still, I wanted to tell my life because it is a life of work and although I was not one of the first women filmmakers, I did set the level very high."
The bar she set has been a benchmark for all filmmakers who came after her. She was the principal female character of the most influential movement in modern cinema, the French New Wave, and her tales of this period and the characters who made up the movement are fascinating insights. The key ingredient of this work, she argues, stems from something that she decided early on in her career. "I decided right away I wanted to make difficult films. The first film I made in 1954 [La Pointe Courte] was very difficult, one chapter of reality and one of fiction - I tried to make another way of proposing a film.
"Films are just consumed most of the time - which is fine, I consume films myself - but it is the seventh art for me and I like to do things that accord with my condition of being an artist." Sadly, it's likely that The Beach of Agnes will be her swansong. But who can complain if this fabulous artist wants to spend some more time on the beach with her grandchildren. * Kaleem Aftab