I'm not inclined to recommend movies on fuzzy humanist grounds, but The Beaches of Agnès is the kind of film that will make you feel better about cinema, humanity, and life itself. It's been years since anything has come out with the same messy vitality of this memoir-documentary, and if you are able to walk away from it without feeling absolutely joyful and filled with hope, then you are a more cynical being than I am, and that's kind of amazing.

Agnès Varda is best known in the United States as (in no especial order) the director of 1962's Cléo from 5 to 7, the token woman in the French New Wave, and the wife of Jacques Demy (best known himself for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Beaches is the film she made in the year prior to her 80th birthday in May, 2008; it is an attempt to sort all of her memories of life in the first 79 years of her existence as the daughter of a Greek immigrant to Belgium; as a naturally gifted filmmaker whose first feature, released when she was 26 and by her recollection had only seen 10 movies in her life, beat any of the New Wave boys by a good five years; as a mother of two children by two men, both of them raised with love by Demy, the true love of her life; as an active feminist before feminism was safe and easy; as a creator of experimental media; and most of all as a person who in her life has experienced more things than most of us could ever imagine, from fixing fishing nets to befriending some of the most iconic figures in 20th Century art.

The film begins with Varda walking on a beach, and identifying herself as an actor playing the role of a happy, plump old woman - beaches, she informs us presently, are the primary landscape of her inner self. Thereupon she introduces the process of making this film about her recollections of life with a playful, one might even say overly precious, visual metaphor: a chaotic array of mirrors, reflecting each other, reflecting the sand, the water, Varda, her small army of mirror-distributing crew; but never, pointedly, the camera filming all of the activity. Perhaps it is because she wants to record the moment, but not interfere with it. The camera and the audience are witnessing an event but not taking part actively; though we do of a certainty take part, and our job in The Beaches of Agnès is to take in her images and interpret them, not to create them.

Then too, a camera, like a mirror, creates an illusion of reality that is not the reality itself. And Varda is keenly aware in this film of the line separating what is true from what is only created. At several points she films re-enactments of events from her life, and stops herself to wonder what this means. To the viewer, the reality of this moment is as genuine as Varda telling us her recollections, but as she stands with the actors playing herself as a child, she is struck by the peculiarity of trying to relive her past by means of proxies. All this complexity is eventually done away with, as she lights upon a much safer means of recalling the past: through photographs and movie footage. Though they are a record of a moment and not the moment itself, at least they are only separated from the truth by one degree.

The relationship of the past, documents of the past, and the present, is a key element of this project. In one beautiful scene, Varda shows footage of an unfinished film she shot decades earlier to the grown men who were children in that footage, as the push a projector on a cart through the streets of the city where it was all filmed. Also a peculiar moment, perhaps, but a generous one, and proof of something that becomes obvious over and over again, that Varda is not simply trying to relive her own memories but to give whatever she can of the past to the other people who have been involved with it. This includes her children and their families, and many of her friends from across her career. She is sensitive enough to be aware that her past is not her own; it also belongs to everyone who has known her.

All this is just so much pretentious wankery on top of the movie's true heart and soul, though, which is the fact that Agnès Varda is one of the most charming, wonderfully happy people who have ever walked the face of this earth. She is playing the role of an old woman, she tells us; and maybe it is that she feels old, but you could never guess that from her eyes which are always smiling warmly, frmo her boundless, playful ideas - The Beaches of Agnès is heavy with creativity and invention, whether it's relocating Varda's production company to a beach mocked-up on a city street, or having her good friend Chris Marker appear in her film as Guillame, the cartoon cat he uses as his alter-ego, speaking with a digitally-altered voice, or building a room made up of cinema, the transparent walls lined with footage from a movie that was a massive flop, but makes Varda happy anyway, to be able to give it a second life in this fashion. Or-

But why do I feel the need to list every moment in this film? There is hardly a single instant in the whole two hours of Beaches where Varda does not exude the beatific happiness of a woman whose life has been lived to its fullest, except when she speaks of her beloved Jacques; she is heartbroken, plainly, that the one wish she will never see granted is to grow old and pass away with her husband, who died in 1990 at the age of 59, from AIDS. Other than that point in her recollections, she is contented always.

It's not clear if this is meant to be a valedictory work. In one of the most haunting images here, Varda's children and grandchildren dance, dressed in white, while the director herself is superimposed along with them, in black. And it is plain to her that she is nearer the end of life than the beginning; else why now would she gather up all of these memories and sort through them on film? But at the same time, she is not saying goodbye, nor indicating that she intends to retire. Though if this is her last project, it will surely be the most perfect final film ever created. For with The Beaches of Agnès, Varda has summed up the whole of her life, and judged it satisfying and good. And this is why it is such an unusually pleasing, affirmative motion picture: its message is that one can life a good life, and be happy at the end of it without fear or sorrow, secure in the knowledge that the memory of beautiful moments is never lost.