There’s a fleeting moment in Agnes Varda’s 2008 documentary The Beaches of Agnes where the filmmaker returns home sees her family of cats and bluntly states “I’m home. The cats are here.” And that moment summarizes the film as a whole – as a film that chronicles Varda’s life in cinema, as a woman and as a person aging – while staying as honest and playful as its subject and creator.
The Beaches of Agnes came at a point in Varda’s career where she had all but abandoned narrative cinema – her prior feature length narrative film, One Hundred and One Nights, was released in 1995 – and had spent the past two decades building a body of documentary work, something she had worked with in years prior leading to films like Mur murs and Daguerreotypes. But 2000’s The Gleaners & I brought forth a sea change for Varda, establishing herself as a subject worthy of the same attention she gave to anything or anyone else in front of her camera with the advent of small digital cameras allowing for an intimacy that she was unable to achieve until the new millennium.
Like The Gleaners & I, The Beaches of Agnes could be called autobiographical – and even much more so than that film – yet both are concerned as much with the world around Varda as Varda herself. The primary threads of The Beaches of Agnes are concerned with aging, with a life lived and with a life shared – much of that involving Jacques Demy. It is told in playful re-enactments, clips of her films, conversations with people in her life and, of course, through Varda’s own words. Never melancholy, always mirthful, Varda clearly takes joy in traversing the places she once inhabited alone or with Jacques, and the film works as a cinema travelogue both in the traversal of geographic space – she bounces around from city to city, beach to beach – as well as a temporal one, seemingly always able to recount the past in vivid detail while remaining aware of and engaged in the present.
And there’re the cats. Varda’s love of felines has been well documented, including previously by herself and her work with fellow cat enthusiast Chris Marker (who appears here as an animated cat). Varda is most at home, surrounded by cats, in her restored home with an outdoor space no longer filled with junk – a fact she is very proud of. Home is a topic that comes up a lot in The Beaches of Agnes and one can see why. For someone who has traveled the world and can recount memories shared with Jim Morrison, Harrison Ford and Gerard Depardieu, Varda is most prideful when talking about Jacques and her children – who appear in the film and re-enactments playing themselves. Home for Varda may not stop at a physical space or even her family, the movie itself feels like Varda’s home – filled with memories, loved ones and plenty of cats.
Varda ends The Beaches of Agnes by saying “I am alive and I remember,” Varda has lived a life full of adventure, creation and passion. Her contemporary documentary work has captured all of this via Varda’s words and artifacts – still photos, home movies, letters – as she is as much an archivist as a creator, curating both her past and her present and always ready for the future. It has been nearly ten years since the release of The Beaches of Agnes, long thought to be her final feature film, yet Varda is back at nearly 80 years old with Faces Places, another autobiographical documentary that sees Varda roaming around Paris with her dyed hair and welcoming smile-and cinema is happy that she’s home again.