Visages Villages (Faces Places) arrives as a lovely addition to the long line of personal documentaries about French life at ground level that Agnes Varda has been making throughout her entire career. On an extensive road trip to mostly rural and/or working-class communities, the teeny 88-year-old veteran director and the tall 33-year-old hipster visual artist known as JR get to know the locals and post vast photographic portraits on ordinary structures, always leaving something distinctive behind after their brief, rewarding visits. A natural for festivals and specialized commercial venues, this will be most widely seen on arts-oriented television internationally.
Only recently acquainted, the two creators hit it off famously and collaborate with great ease on a journey driven by mutual curiosity and creative application. With Varda having given up driving, JR, who always wears dark glasses, “like Godard,” as Varda points out, takes the wheel of a van that contains a photo booth and can also produce large paper prints of photographs that can then be plastered anywhere the artists choose.
The first stop is France’s little-visited North, coal-mining country littered with abandoned, dilapidated homes and where just one last inhabitant still holds out. The visit is haunting and sets the tone for the unplanned nature of the trip, which will bear out Varda’s view that, “Chance has always been my best asset.”
For his part, JR is always looking for walls on which to post his graphics, which are mostly straight-ahead portraits of considerable simplicity and appeal. The everyday people always react favorably to their own depiction and the way the enormous pictures enhance their surroundings; there is no skepticism of interloping outsiders here, only enthusiasm and openness to the ever-curious vagabonds.
Along the way are a man who tends to 2,000 acres entirely on his own and acknowledges that farming, which used to be a communal endeavor, is now an anti-social way of life; a fellow in charge of ringing the church bell in a small village; another who runs a cinema; factory workers in charge of plant safety; seafood market operators; cheese makers; JR’s 100-year-old grandmother; truck drivers; and dock workers in Le Havre.
It may well run through some viewers’ minds that the areas the artists visit are widely regarded as Marine Le Pen country, the home of left-behinds, the religious, the ignored — but politics are never mentioned, as that’s not what the film is about.
Almost invariably, people express pride in and love for their work, whatever hardships and solitariness that might come with it. There are any number of touching, and sometimes moving, moments, as well as a sense of time and the old ways passing. One old-timer even says of death that, “I’m looking forward to it.” Why? “Because that will be that.”
Back in Paris, with JR pushing Varda at great speed in a wheelchair, the filmmakers playfully recreate the exhilarating racing-through-the-Louvre sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders. Godard is a friend and creative colleague of Varda’s going back to the 1950s, and he and Anna Karina used to socialize a great deal with Varda and her husband Jacques Demy. Regretting that she hasn’t seen him in some time, Varda is delighted to receive an invitation to visit him at his home in Rolle, Switzerland, at 9:30 on a certain date.
But when Varda and JR arrive at the appointed time, no one’s home; all they find is a cryptic message written on a window. Although she well knows how bizarre and maddening Godard can be, Varda is still deeply hurt by the insulting no-show. “He’s a dirty rat,” she exclaims. “No thanks for your bad hospitality.”
It’s not mentioned whether Varda and JR ever considered pasting a giant photograph onto Godard’s house. But to make his friend feel better, JR then does something he never does — he takes off his glasses, a gesture related to the viewer in a very clever way. It’s a poignant ending to a little jewel of a film.
Production companies: Cine Tamaris, JRSA, Rouge International, Arte France Cinema, Arches Films
Directors: Agnes Varda, JR
Directors of photography: Romain Le Bonniec, Claire Duguet, Nicolas Guicheteau, Valentin Vignet
Editor: Maxime Pozzi Garcia
Music: Matthew Chedid
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)