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Agnès Varda’s Double Portrait

Cohen Media Group
JR and Agnès Varda in their film Faces Places, 2017

Faces Places (Visages Villages in French) is an unexpected—and perhaps final—gift from the visionary eighty-nine-year-old director Agnès Varda. Varda had previously announced that her 2008 documentary self-portrait, The Beaches of Agnès, would be her last film, doubting that she had the physical strength to undertake another full-length feature. But chance, which Varda has often acknowledged as her best assistant, intervened; the making of Faces Places is the proof of her axiom.

The film, in which she sets out to document something of the daily realities of the people in a range of French villages, is a record of coincidence and risk. Not the least of these is Varda’s collaboration with her youthful co-director, JR, an artist famous for his monumental installations of black-and-white photo portraits on and in structures including the walls of Brazilian favelas, shipping containers, trains, streets, and grand public institutions like the Panthéon, frequently mounted under his direction by a team of the subjects themselves. (JR’s most recent installation, hung in early September on the border between Tecate, Mexico, and San Diego County in the United States, is a seventy-foot-tall photograph of a Mexican toddler, gazing toward the barrier wall that severs the two countries.) Faces Places is a double portrait, JR’s of Varda at the end of her life and Varda’s of him, a young artist still learning to see.

The film they make also has a double subject: the unexpected delights and discoveries of documenting the lives of the people they encounter in corners of France, and of the bittersweet, and inevitably transitory, friendship that developed during the making of the film between the two artists, travelers in different centuries, looking at the world together and experiencing each other. JR is a man who refuses to be seen, never removing his sunglasses, while Varda is losing her sight. Anything might yet happen to JR, while Varda is at the last border of experience, measuring her body’s advancing ruin. The reclusive JR has quickly become wildly famous, while the ebulliently sociable and voluble Varda has always deliberately refused celebrity. For both, though, art is an encounter with the unknown. Each artist is also the subject of the other, in a work of intricate and sometimes whimsical symmetry, in which a portrait can respond to, describe, and differ with, the artist in the act of creation. “You are playing the wise old granny,” JR says at one point to Agnès, who ripostes, “And you the spirited young man.” Throughout Faces Places, in fact, the people photographed are also filmed reacting to their images, in dialogue not just with the filmmakers but with their own faces.

Cohen Media Group
A still from Faces Places showing one of JR’s installations, 2017

JR lends Varda his energy and mobility, while she gives him memory, the treasure at the heart of all her work, the capacity to remember someone else’s memories, the legacy that is the foundation of culture itself. Varda, who ingeniously and matter-of-factly documents her own memory lapses using filmed sequences to replace the memory of incidents she has forgotten, is educating JR in transmitting and restoring memory. The movie bears witness to a profound and subtle change in his work, a change wrought not by will, but through their evolving relationship.

JR is known for the immediacy of his work, traveling throughout the world in a truck that houses a photo booth, instantly printing pictures of the people he encounters. He decorates public buildings and hardscrabble neighborhoods with portraits of local people who are often ignored, making them not only visible, but monumental. In Faces Places, though, we see him begin to photograph not only the faces of the living, but the faces of those who no longer exist. He sets grandly scaled photographs of miners, drawn from a collection of old postcards of Varda’s, on a row of miner’s cottages in northern France slated to be demolished. He pastes a nude photograph Varda took in 1960 of the tormented fashion photographer Guy Bourdin on a Nazi bunker deteriorating on a Normandy beach. He begins to see what Varda sees: the faces of the dead, set as they always are, among, and within, the faces of the living. Faces Places is unmistakably the work of both artists, incorporating JR’s epic incarnations of the ignored and neglected, and Varda’s art of making films that imbricate the unseen with the seen. All her films are triptychs, in a sense, one of her favorite forms, with the central subject flanked by sections that can be opened and closed, revealing different aspects of the story. Varda is the great archivist of the imperceptible.

She is the only female director associated with the postwar French Nouvelle Vague group; her film La Pointe Courte (1955) created a cinematic alphabet for its successors. Varda was from the outset, and has remained, one of the least conventional filmmakers in the history of an art dominated by conventional ways of telling stories, big money, and the manipulative courtship of gigantic audiences. When she lived in California, she remembers being asked the quintessential Los Angeles question, “Are you in the industry?” She answered, “I make films, not deals.” She has never done anything so swaggeringly commonplace as to defy convention; she simply departed from it.

Varda brings a unique wellspring of visual memory into her filmmaking, being an artist and photographer as well as a film director. (She is also a fine writer—the excerpts of her journals written in the Hollywood of the late Sixties in Varda par Agnès read like magical realism in diary form.) She also makes conscious use of techniques of poetry, such as repetition. Words, too, have stature in her work, and what is spoken is not submerged by the images, but shapes, recalls, and evokes them. Poems, songs, and books have figured in both her films and installations, as has her recognition of the power of objects and of possessions. Her film Vagabond (1985), she remarked, is not only the story of a homeless girl, but of the state of her sleeping bag, without which she cannot survive.

Capital Cinéma
Jane Birkin in Varda’s Jane B. par Agnès V., 1988

Varda studied art history at the Sorbonne in 1946, and painting is always a presence, sometimes concealed, in her films, through allusions to color or gestures, or through actors who exit the enclosed, framed worlds of familiar paintings to enter new scenarios. In Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988), her great exploration of the nature of acting, she stages an Annunciation; but the actress Jane Birkin’s Virgin’s divine pregnancy arrives not through a courtly, reverent messenger but through a furious, accusatory angel. Varda is fascinated by Annunciation scenes, which she sees as subtle expressions of the relations between men and women as much as those between the divine and the human. She must have encountered many self-righteous and hostile angels as a single mother in the Paris of the Fifties, in an era when not only were birth control and abortion illegal, but also legal distinctions were made between legitimate children and illegitimate ones, whose fathers were discouraged from acknowledging them formally.

At the Sorbonne, she was also a student of the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who studied thought and imagination in relation to the surrounding natural and domestic worlds, in works like Water and Dreams and The Poetics of Space. Varda remembers that she was too shy ever to speak to him, but she opens The Beaches of Agnès with a sentence that might be addressed to him: “If you could open people up, you would find landscapes inside them. As for myself, if you could open me up, you would find beaches.”

Varda’s camera does not so much record images as embody them, take on an emphatic physical reality itself, scuttling, surging, touching. It is hard to find a more passionate, though discreet, expression of physical love than the caressing close-ups of the hair, eyes, and face of her mortally ill husband, the director Jacques Demy, in Jacquot de Nantes (1993). And her camera has also been a mirror. She is far from being a deity remote from her creations: her films take into account, whether directly or indirectly, the conditions of her own life at the time of filming. What she grasps or questions in what she is living enters each film. L’Opéra-Mouffe (1958), made during Varda’s first pregnancy, is a diary of the associations, observations, and fears a Paris neighborhood stirs in a pregnant woman (the faces of the alcoholic homeless, for instance, haunt her as a possible future for her child). Daguerréotypes (1976), made after Varda’s second child was born, reflects the physical restrictions motherhood places on a woman; Varda famously ran an electric cable fifty feet from her house—the farthest distance she dared go during the period of caring for her baby—in order to film the shopkeepers on her street. Varda’s physical characteristics are also part of the work of filming; a tiny woman, she made Daguerréotypes standing on a chair. As she has said, “I am not behind the camera, I am in it.”   

A sequence from Faces Places (2017)

This element of her work is perhaps most poignantly apparent in Faces Places. It is a road movie, with a road movie’s uncertainty of destination, but it also functions as a kind of secular Book of Hours, with all that the passage from Matins to Compline implies of the passage of life from beginning to end. Delicately, candidly, but without self-aggrandizement, Varda explores what living is like when death is so close, not only through her own condition, but in a shared awareness of the constant quotidian patterns of change, loss, and death in the lives of the people she meets, including her young companion’s ninety-nine-year-old grandmother, and his at times embarrassed awareness of the disparity between the futures they can expect. The young, too, are witness to the passage of time, even the lovely waitress in the small Provencal village of Bonnieux, whom they capture in a moment of supreme and fleeting beauty. The very first photographs the two directors take together are of the creation of a secular Communion, individual shots of people biting into a baguette; the images are juxtaposed so that they seem to be sharing an infinitely long loaf of bread, and the juxtaposition, picturing an event that never happened, serves as a kind of tribute to art’s power to create the imagined possibility of shared community.

She and JR meet and film people often living under some kind of threat, like the résistante in a coal-mining village who refuses to let her house be demolished, eradicating the memory of what the coal miners lived through. They photograph her enveloped in the lace curtains of her window, as if she were wearing a mantilla made of her house.

In the next sequence, JR and Agnès film a farmer whom JR met hitchhiking. His village turns out to be where the writer Nathalie Sarraute, the great experimentalist of the nouveau roman who reconfigured realist narrative—an important influence and friend of Varda’s—lived in her later life. An oblique image of the plaque on Sarraute’s house, with her birth and death dates, evokes the similar plaque that will commemorate Varda one day.

They meet people whose work may be dying out: a goat farmer who refuses to cut off her herd’s horns to comply with the capitalist demands for more and more production and profit, and a bell-ringer, a person whose work is focused on the passage of time itself. His demonstration of ringing the bells in his tower is one of the film’s most unforgettable images; the heavy bells ring him as well, as he is almost flung from one corner of the tower to the other by the music, falling and rising violently, as if he is dying and being born simultaneously. 

We are witness to the physical ardors of Varda’s daily life, as she endures an injection meant to alleviate the macular degeneration that is destroying her sight, making all she sees waver. JR helps her off benches that are awkward for her, because her feet can’t touch the ground. After watching JR running and playfully leaping from one building to another, she confesses she can’t run anymore. He promises to wheel her at top speed through some galleries of the Louvre. She cries out in delight as the work of painters she loves washes over her, as JR executes a kind of dance of pushing her, the two of them moving pictures among moving pictures. 

The film ends with an unexpected loss, and an equally unexpected gift. I won’t tell what either is, but I will say that as Varda nears her death, I have never seen a more valiant flea dancing on the lip of the lion.


JR and Agnès Varda’s Faces Places will be released on October 6 in New York and October 13 in Los Angeles, with other theaters following.