NOVEMBER 9, 2017
IN 1962, Agnès Varda directed a film about a young woman wandering through Paris. As afternoon becomes evening, she visits a fortune teller, meets her boyfriend, shops for hats, sings, and talks to a soldier, all while dreading that she’s about to be diagnosed with terminal cancer. Again and again, the film leads us to wonder whether these events have any greater meaning. Does the woman’s life consist of one banal episode after another? Or do her wanderings have some hidden logic, guiding her toward enlightenment as death approaches? What, if anything, is special about these people, these places, this day?
Fifty-five years after completing her first masterpiece, Cléo from 5 to 7, Varda has directed a new documentary, Faces Places (Visages Villages), that poses some of the same questions. For the duration of the film, she and her co-director, the artist JR, travel across the French countryside, installing building-sized works of art in remote, working-class towns. Much like Cléo, the documentary is divided into short episodes. In each one, Varda and JR visit a new village, glue a large photograph — usually of a local person or group of people — onto a wall, befriend some of the villagers, and then drive on to their next destination. Yet Faces Places isn’t just about a literal journey; like Cléo, it depicts a woman struggling with her own mortality, wondering if each new face or place she encounters might be her last. In the earlier film, this woman was a fictional character, played by Corinne Marchand. In Faces Places, the woman is Agnès Varda.
Varda, who turned 89 earlier this year, was born in Belgium but fled to France after the outbreak of World War II. She studied photography and art history at the École des Beaux-Arts, and directed her first feature, La Pointe Courte, at the age of 26. She was married to Jacques Demy, director of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, until his death in 1990, and she’s still discussed in the same breath as Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and the other “Left Bank” figures of the French New Wave. She has made 22 feature films, a few dozen shorts, and innumerable video art pieces, more than enough to qualify her as a titan of contemporary cinema, though “Godmother of the French New Wave” is the label that’s stuck.
Varda’s films study many different ways of wandering. Quite often, as in Cléo and Faces Places, the wandering she depicts is literal, a journey without an endpoint. In her recent documentaries, The Gleaners and I (2000) and Beaches of Agnès (2008), the wandering takes on more abstract, intellectual forms, and the films’ structures are appropriately loose. (The former work, “about” the practice of gleaning, features a digression on Lacanian psychoanalysis and a three-minute “Dance of the Lens Cap” shot, captured accidentally when Varda forgot to turn off her camera.) A Varda film can feel like a patchwork of ideas, places, and people — a bricolage, to use one of the director’s favorite words — glued together by the protagonist’s restless desire to create something new. The main character in Vagabond (1985) feels compelled to travel through French wine country, stopping only when she freezes to death. As Varda has gotten older, she’s come to seem increasingly like that character: she’ll keep exploring new places and learning new things, right up until she draws her final breath.
Like the quixotic journeys they depict, Varda’s films sometimes run the risk of adding up to less than the sum of their parts. The endless episodes and narrative swerves can be tiresome or, even when they charm, oddly forgettable in the long run. Varda is at her best when she finds ways of grounding her work in a deeper, more substantive theme — something that sticks after each new digression fades away. It’s no accident that many of her finest films revolve around works of art: the murals of Los Angeles in Mur Murs (1981); Jean-François Millet’s 1857 painting The Gleaners in The Gleaners and I; the endless collages designed by Varda’s eccentric, Sausalito-based relative in Uncle Yanco (1967). Varda is quick to point out that art can be ephemeral, but paintings and sculptures tend nevertheless to act as steadying forces in her films, curbing the sense of aimlessness one might otherwise feel while watching them.
In no small part, Varda’s films delight because they have a secret weapon: Varda herself. Since 1994, she’s narrated and starred in all of her own work and structured it unapologetically around her own interests and experiences. When, in Beaches of Agnès, she changes the subject, it’s because she felt like doing so — end of story. This is a bold strategy, but one that usually works, at least for me, thanks to Varda’s extraordinary unpretentiousness. The question Faces Places implies, though, is: Must a documentary about the wanderings of a lovely person be lovely to watch?
Faces Places sets some of the most familiar Varda themes — art, friendship, travel — against the backdrop of Varda’s later years. We see her getting surgery to correct her failing eyesight, reminiscing about her youth, and mourning her friends and family. Quite possibly the documentary’s most impressive achievement is that it manages to show all this while avoiding the typical heaviness of a late, “career-crowning” work. Its touch throughout is modest and whimsical — sometimes, in light of the material, to a fault.
Varda’s modesty is apparent even before the opening credits have finished. It would be hard to imagine Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, or any of Varda’s other French contemporaries co-directing at the end of their long careers. For her 22nd feature, however, Varda cheerfully shares a director’s credit with JR, and while the film is plainly an Agnès Varda work, it’s equally a study of her partner’s aesthetic practices. Very little is known about the life of the animated, sunglasses-and-fedora-sporting photographer known as JR; even his real name is a matter of speculation. Born in 1983, he spent much of his teens spraying graffiti onto trains and rooftops. At the age of 17, he began gluing large photographs to outdoor walls, the illegal act that would eventually become his trademark. Since 2000, he’s traveled to Palestine, Old Havana, and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, photographing anonymous locals and pasting enormous, building-sized reproductions of their eyes and faces onto the sides of buildings. The stated goals of these public art works are to celebrate people who are often ignored because of their race, gender, nationality, and income, and, by the same token, to thwart the advertisers and assorted power elites who ensure that most of the faces on the sides of buildings are wealthy and white.
Since Faces Places premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, JR has debuted a new public art installation. Along the wall dividing Mexico from the United States, south of San Diego and north of Tecate, there now stands a 65-foot-tall photograph of a Mexican toddler named Kikito. Supported by scaffolding on the Mexican side, the colossal Kikito peers innocently into the United States, the country that armed soldiers prevent him from entering. The photograph is one of the only JR installations that can’t be viewed by the people on whose land it was built — only Americans can see Kikito’s likeness. Perhaps this is because, more than any of JR’s earlier works, the photograph is directed to a single viewer: the president of the United States, who announced his reversal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on the same day the installation was completed. By the same token, the installation is one of the few in JR’s career that doesn’t fit onto a preexisting structure: instead, the child and scaffolding tower over the Mexican border, ridiculing the racist vitriol that walls have lately come to symbolize.
This is an ambitious and even noble political project. But it’s worth emphasizing that it’s not quite the project JR has been pursuing for the last 17 years; nor is it the one he and Varda embark on in Faces Places. Instead of functioning as targets of political criticism, walls are intrinsic to JR’s body of work. The JR of Faces Places doesn’t want to tear down anything; rather, he wants to preserve society’s structures and use them for a more enlightened purpose. And this is a perfect way to think of Agnès Varda’s recent career. Her documentaries rarely project a sense of indignation with the state of the world — they want to repurpose without destroying. Strangely for an overtly political filmmaker, a strong affability runs through her work.
One sees Varda and JR’s affability in their mission “to meet new faces and photograph them.” The duo drives to a small, rural community and invites passersby into their truck, which doubles as a photo booth and spits 50-foot-high black-and-white images out of its side. Then, they recruit a gaggle of locals to help them mount the images on the side of the nearest building. The sight of little children working alongside grown men and women to glue the photographs in place can be charming and even inspiring. In a salt factory in the town of Bonnieux, Varda and JR design an installation showing the workers and management reaching out to one another; as the workers erect their photograph, one smiles and says, “We can all get along” — as succinct, if banal, an explanation of JR’s art as one is likely to hear.
Even so, one wonders if the whimsy of Varda and JR’s project interferes with the political critique that JR has claimed as central to his work for as long as he’s been in the public eye. He says that he uses a pseudonym to avoid being arrested for defacing buildings, but the only run-in with the law that he and Varda have is a brief and entirely friendly chat with a police officer who seems tickled to be on camera. In the last decade, JR’s once-illegal portraits of homeless Parisian children have been honored by the same municipal government they criticized. In 2014, in partnership with the New York City Ballet, he decorated a Tribeca building with a giant photograph of a leaping dancer — an installation that, whatever one’s opinion of Lincoln Center, seems suspiciously like a conventional advertisement. “An artist must be famous to be heard,” wrote the art critic Robert Hughes, “but as he acquires fame, so his work accumulates ‘value’ and becomes, ipso facto, harmless.” De-fanged by celebrity, JR and Varda make friends and art, but never seem willing to get their hands dirty. What’s left is a warm, insubstantial togetherness: getting along, but without any idea how.
In the half-built ghost town of Pirou-Plage, its recent history a cause both for outrage and triumph, Varda and JR arrange for a photograph of a goat to be glued to the side of a barn. The image is meant to raise awareness of an “issue”: the dehorning of captive goats to ensure that they don’t hurt each other. A passing man inquires about the meaning of the photograph and learns about some of the neighboring farmers’ practices. “Goats were born to have horns!” he shouts, and then proposes that, rather than cutting them off altogether, farmers should dull the horns by gluing rubber balls onto the tips. Why cutting off goats’ horns is all that bad, why covering them in rubber is preferable, and whether it might be a better use of everyone’s time to talk about why the animals are in captivity at all are legitimate questions that Varda and JR choose not to address. Instead, they skim from place to place and issue to issue, never stopping long enough for real controversy to arise.
Faces Places alludes to a handful of the social conflicts impacting its rural subjects’ lives, chief among them the decline of unionism and the slow emptying out of the countryside (in 2017, the percentage of France’s population living in cities will crack 80 percent for the first time in history). But it addresses these conflicts distantly, rather than incisively. Part of the reason, it would seem, is that the two directors are prepared to befriend everyone they meet and criticize no one, a feat that’s only possible with a fair amount of political vagueness. Meanwhile, the facts tell a more complex story. Early this year, running for president on a platform of immigrant deportation and Islamophobia, Marine Le Pen polled under five percent in Paris but surged in the countryside, including many of the regions Varda and JR visit. Were Varda to scrutinize her subjects’ beliefs, the film’s joie wouldn’t be sustainable.
The most telling moment in Faces Places comes when a local man asks Varda and JR about their latest project, a photograph of a fish pasted on the curve of a water tower. What could be the point of such a bizarre image? It’s all part of an exchange, Varda answers: she and JR design installations that honor the villagers’ “politics,” and in return they make art based on their own “quirky ideas.” “Politics for quirky ideas” might as well be the documentary’s tagline, but it’s also an apt way of describing why Varda and JR’s road trip, which condescendingly equates their whims with the material struggles of the working class, proves frustrating. By partnering with JR and surrounding herself with proletariats for a few days at a time, Varda seems to believe that she can help, in her playful manner. Instead, the quirky aesthetic tends to interfere with politics, emphasizing surface idiosyncrasies at the expense of a penetrating look at the subjects’ ways of life. So genial by nature, and so curious about the little details, Varda doesn’t seem to recognize when her material calls out for a broader scope or a more incisive tone. She can’t see the goat because she’s so interested in its horns.
Image courtesy of Cohen Media Group.