As the moptopped godmother of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda never enjoyed the fame (or acclaim) of a Godard or a Truffaut. It is only now, though, in her senior years, that she may have finally stumbled onto her most indelible role as a twinkly and mischievous self-dramatizing sprite. Varda, born in 1928, presides over The Beaches of Agnès, her lithe and leaping documentary scrapbook, like a Rachel Dratch who's aged into a very wise old angel. Taking a trip back through the cinema, her own diary, and the 20th century, she lets you know that she's conjuring her memories right on the spot, doing just what she wants to do. It's that of-the-moment, life-unfolding-into-cinema spirit that defined the New Wave, and for this filmmaker it is now a way of being. In The Beaches of Agnès, you get addicted to watching Agnès Varda watch the world.
She muses on photographs of her friends Godard and Jim Morrison, plus an ancient screen test she shot with Harrison Ford. She reenacts moments from her childhood (a grizzled flasher she saw as a girl becomes a Proustian vision) and revisits locations from her films, matching them with shots from the movies themselves, like her 1962 feminine-mystique landmark Cléo From 5 to 7, or a shocking young Gérard Depardieu as a smug hippie thief in Nausicaa. And she draws back the curtain on her life with Jacques Demy, the director of old-wave-splashed-with-New-Wave musicals (like Lola), who was her partner in love and art; his death from AIDS in 1990 gives the movie an overpowering undertow of loss. The Beaches of Agnès taps a haunting nostalgia, because it invites the art-house audience to get wistful for what it once was that is, for a time when an artist like Varda only had to dream it, and we would come. A