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While the average documentary is usually concerned with exposing hard facts about a situation outside the artist, Agnès Varda seems to have invented the genre of film memoir. Visages Villages (Faces Places) screened at the Out of Competition at Cannes this year is a movie she codirected with the photographer JR about their road trip through France.
The first Agnès Varda film I saw was The Gleaners and I (2000), her quasi-documentary about food scavengers in France. I watched it for a film class and knew nothing about Varda or the doc beforehand. By the time I finished the movie, I was simultaneously delighted by it and utterly confused as to its relevance, toward my course or to the cinema in general. Shot mostly on the digital camcorder, it looked and felt like a home video made by a woman with a lot of time on her hands. What kind of revolution is that?
Anyone unfamiliar with Varda probably would have felt the same way at the end of the Special Screening of Visages Villages (Faces Places) at Cannes this year, a movie she codirected with the photographer JR about their road trip through France. Her standing ovation lasted twelve minutes and ended only when she exited the theater.
Agnes Varda is the rarest breed of artist, those which galvanize and structure an entire movement simply by making the work that is true to themselves. Now 89, she is approximately five feet tall with bobbed, half-dyed hair reminiscent of a frosted gumdrop (ever iconic). When she began making movies in 1955, the Hollywood studio system was in the height of perpetrating its “seamless counter-reality,” building and occupying worlds, not like ours.
Across the Atlantic, neorealism, an attempt by mostly Italian directors to make movies about real, working-class people, was still in its infancy. Varda took this concept and ran, often choosing real people over professional actors to fill out her casts.
Sixty years later, Visages Villages entirely blurs the line between documentary and feature, starring Varda and JR as they encountering real working-class French, framed, captured and produced with the help of a slim supplemental film crew.
While the average documentary is usually concerned with exposing hard facts about a situation outside the artist, Varda seems to have invented the genre of film memoir. As with memoirs on paper, it’s all in the telling. The film is mostly built upon vignettes of small French towns, which Varda and JR have arrived at in the latter’s truck-cum-printing-press. From there, Varda and JR narrate evenly, reminiscing about their experiences in town. Their narration of the vignette is supplemented with footage of the people they meet there, whom they interview and work with.
The duo wears the term co-directors lightly, as the Visages Villages’ style clearly belongs to Varda. Long known for cogency without being flashy, her filmmaking is simple and direct. Their infiltration into these small French towns most resembles that of a television exposé, yet scenes are composed and conducted like that of a feature film. There is no tendency to take a situation and run with it; if something unexpected happens on camera, Varda will calmly and quietly reminisce about it in voiceover, rather than play up the spontaneity, and this calm is the nuts and bolts of her memoir style. Intermixed is subtle commentary about mortality, about making art to perpetuate your presence in the world. It would be a different film indeed with a young man calling the shots, especially one as buoyant as JR.
However, Visages Villages is the product of intense, coequal collaboration. Without fail, each village adventure ends with art. JR has built a trendy career off of flyposting massive photographs onto walls and streetscapes – he once redecorated the Louvre – and in the film he almost always works with his friend Agnès to photograph and paste some member of the village onto some part of their landscape. The title “Faces Places” is a lot more specific than expected. Behind it, all is the unlikely (and remarkably unencumbered) friendship between Varda and JR, a sort of Criterion-Collection-meets-Snapchat.
How they did meet is anyone’s guess; they openly eschew it in the movie. Similar interests are obvious – both are the radical prominent photographers of their age – and JR is reminiscent of one of Varda’s oldest friends, Jean-Luc Godard, in that he refuses to be seen without sunglasses on, which she ribs him for. On the red carpet going into the premiere, JR literally danced circles around Varda, providing playful fodder for the paparazzi while she focused on tackling the flight of stairs. At one point, as he got down on one knee to mime a proposal, she practically had to swat him away. This tension speaks to a wide generational difference about the expectations of pursuing your craft. When Agnès Varda first stepped behind the camera, there was no space for fame akin to those in front of it. JR now rides a wave made popular by the whims of the Internet.
Even with this rift, the film is far from dramatic, more like an idyllic stroll through France, what would amount to B-roll for the average documentary crew. Agnès Varda is happy to wait for a story rather than make one, or not even have one at all, and, at times, I began to wonder how it had slipped into a festival of films, each determined to be more important than the last. It bore more resemblance to your grandmother’s vacation slideshow than traditional cinema. But this is, in fact, what makes Varda radical, so much so that popular culture has followed her career’s trajectory and overshot it. Aren’t we all, these days, making movies about ourselves?
What would have stunned audiences fifty years’ prior for its subjective honesty now feels old hat, something anyone can accomplish with a handheld camera, and it’s no help that Agnès Varda reveals in the quotidian and avoids the unrealistic. Therefore, it’s a great thing that her style is as revolutionary as her process, or there would be no difference between her films and our videos.
What made The Gleaners and I great is the same thing that transforms Visages Villages: there is no ego to a Varda film. It neither takes itself too seriously nor not seriously enough. Rather, it is a work made in total earnest, by a woman who is honest with herself about the way she sees the world.
Even as her personal style of turning the camera around has grown mundane, works as self-actualized, unashamed, and real as hers are more important and radical than ever. Who among us can say that our personal use of the camera is not an extension of our egos, an insulation on our personas? Varda uses it instead to strip these away, to find herself. Whatever else happens in the film is almost incidental.
The closest thing to a climax in the movie is when she and JR go to Jean-Luc Godard’s house, to make more JR murals, and find him gone. He left her a note on his door, which, like much else, Godard produces these days, seemed to be a practical joke that didn’t quite make sense. For the first time, a real event didn’t follow the film’s formula, and, while this would be grounded in anyone else’s work for cutting and moving on, it’s enough to disrupt the whole movie for Agnès Varda. Distraught and upset, she sits down with JR and asks him to do her a favor: remove, just once, his bedeviling sunglasses. He does this and looks at Varda. As if with his vision, the audience makes out the diminutive woman through a blanket of near-blinding light, and she looks back. We then see with her sight, though fractured by aging, and make out JR, for the first time, without his shades. Varda’s vision makes it too blurry for us to get a good look.
The moment is so symbolic, simple, and personal that it’s very likely the standing ovation started right then. We were given a potent reminder of Agnès Varda ’s ultimate legacy, what it’s truly like to see through someone else’s eyes.
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