Special Guest Writer: Shelagh Rowan-Legg
The Grand Dame of French cinema, Agnès Varda‘s work has ranged from the New Wave in “Cléo from 5 to 7” (1962), to feminism and friendship in “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (1977), to rebellion in “Vagabond” (1985), to documenting the life of the poor in “The Gleaners and I” (2000). Her recent work has a more introspective feel; a reflection on what she films, and why. This is part of what would turn out to be her penultimate film, “Faces Places” (2017). A joyous and bittersweet look at the role of art in everyday life and work, as well as the role of the artist in society, “Faces Places” is an expansion of her work in self-reflection, a study in her constant quest to challenge herself as a filmmaker, and her love and attention to French rural and working life.
Varda and co-director/graffiti artist JR team up to take a new kind of art show on the road. Travelling in a van that’s shaped like an old-model camera, equipped with a photo booth and a gigantic photo printer, they visit places (and faces) around France. They take pictures of locals and paste them in unusual places: the sides of buildings, huge rocks on the beach, shipping containers. In between these stops, they discuss their role as artists, and their life histories and connection to their art forms.
“Faces Places” is an expansion of her work in self-reflection, a study in her constant quest to challenge herself as a filmmaker, and her love and attention to French rural and working life.”
These stops are not random, nor are the photos they display meant only to look pleasing. As usual with Varda, there is always a covert or overt political message. In one town, where houses that were built for miners are on the verge of being demolished, they reprint old photos of the miners and lay them across the buildings. In the shipyards of northeast coast, photos of the women, wives of dockworkers, are displayed several feet high across shipping containers (likely visible out at sea). In a town of only a few hundred, with one of the last local farmers, Varda and JR post his image on his barn. Many of these places are those forgotten by politicians in power, where work is scarce and money lacking; but these are still citizens of France, and their images are part of the landscape.
But there are moments of whimsy as well, such as when the pair recreate the famous run across the Louvre in “Bande à part” (1964) (albeit with Varda being pushed in a wheelchair by JR), or when JR takes Varda to visit his beloved grandmother. There might be a fifty-year age gap between these two, but their friendship and connection, both as people and artists, is clear and carries the film to a higher level. Much as in “The Beaches of Agnès”, Varda is looking back on her life as a woman and an artist; perhaps looking to JR as the future, of someone who can do some of the same things she did in art, of connecting the larger public to that which is disappearing in France, as well as the artist and art to those, as stated, too often neglected in favour of the urban crowds.
In one scene, they have made arrangements to visit Varda’s old friend and fellow filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. But as befits his reputation, he doesn’t show up, upsetting Varda with a cryptic yet hurtful note, referencing her late husband Jacques Demy. This says as much about Godard and his disdain for the public as it does about Varda and her love of people.
“Much as in “The Beaches of Agnès”, Varda is looking back on her life as a woman and an artist; perhaps looking to JR as the future, of someone who can do some of the same things she did in art”
Indeed, it is not only the love between these two artists of different generations that shines in the film, but their love of people, and how they want their art to be about and for the people. This does not mean dumbing it down or making of fun of those they encounter. It’s about finding art in the everyday and placing art in the everyday; finding it in the cowfields, the shipping yards, the quiet beaches, and the abandoned towns. Faces Places stands as much as a tribute to Varda’s philosophy of work and art as it does to the people and stories she has shared: smart, kind, political, magical, with a hint of melancholy, and an ode to joy.