She has the gift of framing life so viewers instantly see its metaphors and portents. The film opens as Varda and her crew arrange mirrors on the shoreline, artfully setting the stage for the filmmaker's reflections on the panorama of her life.
One need not be familiar with Varda's masterful photographs or landmark movies such as Cleo From 5 to 7, The Gleaners and I, and Vagabond to be enchanted by the playful and melancholy Beaches.
Why beaches? At the outset Varda, cloaked in the flowing scarves and layers of the eternal bohemian, observes that inside every human being is a landscape.
"If you open me up, you'd find beaches inside," she announces before whisking us to the beaches and neighborhoods that inspired her, from her native Belgium to Venice, Calif. Varda makes herself out a liar. As she opens herself up, she shows that she contains a variety of seascapes, landscapes, and other marvelous places.
Prophetically, Varda made her home on the Rue Daguerre (named for the photo pioneer) in the Paris neighborhood of Montparnasse, and herself became a well-known photographer, a chronicler of Paris street life like her neighbor and hero Brassaï. Varda's home, a colorful assemblage of found and repurposed objects, is an eloquent expression of her visual poetry.
Although not herself a cineast - she confesses to having seen fewer than 10 or 20 films before she made her debut with La Pointe Courte (1957) - she organically evolved from still pictures to those that moved.
From this first feature about a couple on the brink of separation, set against a fishing village and starring both professional actors and real fishermen, Varda was fascinated with people's stories, and with how place shaped their destinies.
Like many Varda films, Beaches unfolds at the intersection of imagination and documentary. She shares clips from her films, talks about her husband (filmmaker Jacques Demy) and their children, and shows how her films mirrored her life.
In unlikely places, she gleaned friends (including Harrison Ford, who appears on camera, and Jean-Luc Godard, who does not, although she shows a rare photo of him without his trademark sunglasses) and treasures amid the apparent detritus left on the shore.
Her movies chronicle the existential moment: a couple on the verge of splitsville, a singer awaiting the result of a biopsy (Cleo From 5 to 7), a drifter bobbing like a cork on a riptide (Vagabond). Like the filmmaker Jean Renoir, her art is drenched in pleasure but acknowledges pleasure's corollary, pain.
Frequently Varda narrates a scene while treading backward into the frame, personifying the wisdom that life is lived forward but understood backward.
Yet she also offers something more. For Varda, on the shore contemplating the ocean's infinity at sunset, colors glow their warmest and brightest. Has there ever been such a gracious autobiographer, such a congenial host to a life well lived and well loved?
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/