It’s no wonder that 82-year-old Agnès Varda calls her deeply personal film about her life and her movies, The Beaches of Agnès. The French New Wave, of which she was a pioneering member, liked to place their characters on a beach, where the enormity of existence and the profundity of life could be adequately pondered. Ah, the French. Got to love them for their metaphors and deep thoughts.

The Beaches of AgnesThe Beaches of Agnès is a reflective look backwards, a journey Varda takes with equal doses of melancholy and whimsy (she walks backwards a lot; she uses a lot of mirrors). Varda’s film is profound and deeply moving, particularly her recollections of her deceased husband, Jacques Demy, the director of the influential The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

But for all the sand that she gets between her toes as she wanders the (literal) beaches of Europe and California, she ends up (literally) in the film in a house with walls made of film negatives. “I live within cinema,” she says.

And so, with POV’s airing of The Beaches of Agnès this Tuesday night, and in honor of this maestro who has made a career of combining the real and the fictional, I offer you a quick primer of just five of the dozens of films made by Varda. I’d recommend going to to pick and choose what you’d like to watch.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Cleo from 5 to 7
This is the film that placed Varda squarely on the vanguard of French Cinema. It’s the story of a beautiful young singer who is afraid that she is about to find out that she has cancer, played out in real time one evening. It has Paris, existentialism, Jean-Luc Godard and loads of despair. Magnifique!

La Pointe Courte (1956)

La Pointe CourteThis is Varda’s first film, a story of a small fishing town and an unhappy couple who walk its streets. Juxtaposing documentary footage of the town and the two actors, Varda created one of the first examples of the French New Wave by blending cinéma vérité and straight-up documentary filmmaking. (And if any film critics out there want to correct me on the usage of terms such as New Wave, the Left Bank, cinéma vérité, etc., please let ’em rip.)

Vagabond (1985)

VagabondA personal favorite of mine: this dreary film stars the fantastic Sandrine Bonnaire as a wandering woman who ends up dead. It’s OK, I’m not giving anything away: it actually starts with her dead. The perfect film for angst-ridden teenagers, film-lovers and fans of Varda who marvel at how she keeps on churning out top-notch films.

The Gleaners and I (2001)

The Gleaners and IOf the films I’ve featured here, this one is most within the conventional realm of nonfiction filmmaking. Which is to say, it’s a documentary as opposed to a hybrid. Varda travels across France to explore the world of scavengers. She projects herself onto this group, as she does with all of her films, and audiences will no doubt see themselves here as well.

Jacquot de Nantes (Jacquot), 1991

Jacquot de NantesIf you see Beaches, you’ll probably be curious to see Varda’s tribute to her husband of many years, Demy. You’ve seen how she created this fictional reconstruction of his childhood while he was dying. Watch Jacquot for the great filmmaking, the way Varda actually gives recreations a good name, and for the tragic resonance of it all.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen