VISAGES, VILLAGES/ FACES, PLACES, France, 2016. Starring Agnes Varda, JR. Directed by Agnes Varda, JR. 89 minutes. Rated G.
There is a great deal to enjoy in this documentary or, rather, cinema essay. It has great humanity as well as a delight in cameras and photography.
The French title is quite arresting but the English title capitalises on the play on words in the French title and gives us an English equivalent. In fact, there is quite a range of faces/visages throughout the film, both men and women, photographed for the documentary but also photographed for the installation which is the goal of the journey. And, as the filmmakers travel throughout France, quite a range of places/villages as well.
There is amusing animation for the opening credits, introducing the two central characters by sketch before we see them in real life. Agnes Varda is a veteran of the French film industry from the 1950s. She was a director, cinematographer, collaborator with a lot of the key filmmakers of the time including Jean-Luc Godard. And she was married to the director, Jacques Demy. At the time of making this film she was 88. In more recent years she had shown an interest in photography and documentaries with the feature film, The Beaches of Agnes.
And JR? This is the official name of artist and photographer and muralist, Jean-Paul Beaujon. There is more than half a century in ages between the two. He is 33.
The film amusingly shows a number of scenes of coincidence – where the two are in the same place but do not encounter each other. Rather, Agnes eventually seeks out JR and proposes a mission. They will drive around France, not with any set itinerary, but rather an excursion of discovery. He has a van, The Outside Project, which has its own studio, cameras, and a capacity for developing giant photos.
And this is what JR does. He photographs what interests him, especially people, and with his loyal long-term team, he pastes them on all kinds of surfaces, seemingly the larger the better. He and Agnes enjoy meeting people, interviewing them, finding out about themselves and what their lives are like, then photographing them and installing the photos.
The audience will enjoy going to various locations, small towns, docks, goat farms, restaurants, factories, along a street of houses owned by miners, about to be demolished. There are scenes by the sea, and a huge bunker which has fallen off a cliff and has landed on the sand. The title more than justifies the focus on places.
And the faces are very strong: the discussions with the miners and the memories of their way of life are quite intense as is the talk with Janine, the sole survivor, who has remained in the homes which are to be demolished. She stands at the door of her house with a giant photo of her towering above her. At the goat farm there is a debate about whether the horns of the goats should be removed or not as they are herded into be milked and the milk turned into cheese. There is a huge photo of the goat on the barn wall. This is the same with a farmer who does all the work, formerly done by so many, on his own. The visit to a factory leads to conversations about work, and each shift taken in a group photo.
At the fish market, there are many photos of fish which finish up on the water tower of the country town. At the docks, there are interviews with the men but, especially with their wives who do substantial work on the docks and their portraits, head to toe, pasted on the containers on the wharf. Finding the bunker which has fallen off a cliff onto the Normandy Beach, Agnes offers a photo of her photographers from the past – but the high tide washes it away overnight.
There is also a visit to the house of Jean-Luc Godard with whom Agnes had worked in the past but the visit does not turn out as hoped for.
Agnes has failing eyesight and needs injections – leading to the idea of photographing her eyes as well as her feet and toes with their finishing up on rail carriages.
At the end of the journey, the couple sit together, the animation returns, a gentle pleasure for audiences to remember what they have experienced.
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Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.