Agnès Varda has had a remarkable, 60-year career. As a leader in French New Wave — and one of the only women directors working at the time — Varda placed women’s voices front and center with films like Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond. Now 89 years old, Varda has released a new documentary, in collaboration with 33-year-old French photographer and street artist JR – Faces Places, or Visages Villages as it’s called in French.
In the film, we watch Varda and JR as they undertake an artistic project: Travel to villages around France, interview and photograph their residents, and then turn those photographs into larger-than-life street art. This project is an exercise in nostalgia in itself. We see villagers share their stories — an elderly woman from a mining family who refuses to leave her home; a mailman who remembers when he used to deliver all his mail by bicycle; a goat farmer who refuses to remove her goats’ horns, even though it would lead to an increase of production in goat cheese.
As they pair travels, Varda shares her memories of her early work and her friends and contemporaries like Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. As it turns out, Varda has traveled to many of the villages as a young woman, and sometimes shot films or photographs in them. Even those villages that she hasn’t been to call forth memories; as she and JR travel to a dock, Varda begins to sing an old folk song. In one meaningful scene, Varda convinces JR to use a photograph she took of her late friend, photographer Guy Bourdin, in JR’s art — he pastes the blown-up photo onto the oceanside ruins of a WWII bunker, where it’s soon torn away by the wind and the sea.
But for all the nostalgia, we also see how Varda works as a filmmaker now. She shares her struggles with her health — her damaged eyesight, her limited mobility — yet we see, through her conversations with JR about their artwork, that her creative vision is as brilliant as ever. She has strong opinions on how to photograph fish for a water tower artwork; she directs people recreating an eye chart how to best express how the blurry, shaking letters look to her; it’s her idea to photograph dock workers’ wives, rather than dock workers themselves.
We also watch Varda and JR work together, teasing each other about their style quirks — Varda’s two-toned hair, JR’s refusal to remove his sunglasses — and forming a close friendship despite their age gap of over 50 years. We watch both their deep conversations about art and death, and their silly, petty bickering. The final, meaningful scene is one that celebrates Varda and JR’s friendship.
Faces Places is a celebration of Varda for fans of her work, and a strong introduction for those who haven’t yet watched her films. It premieres on October 6th, 2017.
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