The spirit of the Visages, Villages is present even before its first frame when an animated version of Agnès Varda appears during the opening credits. We recognise her from her distinctive gait, two-tone hair, and the cat on her shoulder. (An abundance of animals, Varda once said, is a good way of telling a film is made by a woman.) Cartoon-Agnès watches as hundreds of names appear in alphabetical order: this is the ‘cast’. Then she wrestles the names of the film’s crew – longtime collaborators, including her daughter – into place. So begins a film that celebrates encounters both fleeting and enduring, that oversteps boundaries of generation, gender, and class. It is a film by a celebrated auteur, but one that has always questioned the singularity of vision that this title connotes. As she says in the film, she can only generate ideas by meeting other people.
The film follows a collaboration between two artists: Varda and JR, whose urban public art and unconfirmed identity have given him the nickname of ‘France’s Banksy’. Together they tour various villages in France, sticking JR’s celebrated black and white large-form portrait photography, printed instantly from the inside of his van, to structures both natural and man-made. Throughout the film people interrogate them as to why they are doing this and Varda always provides the same vague response: ‘For pleasure, and other reasons.’ We come to realise that the documented project is only the film’s framework.
Varda and JR talk about how their collaboration started like that of old friends whose shared history has erased the memory of the first encounter. What they do recall is that they’d previously admired each other’s work from afar. Varda talks touchingly in voiceover (“You wowed me at the Pantheon”), while JR cites the enduring impression left by the Varda protagonists he grew up watching, as images of Cléo and others appear on screen. We observe a bond between two people separated by over 50 years that bears no resemblance to that of a grandparent and grandchild: JR doesn’t patronise Varda (at one point he berates her for not getting up a flight of stairs fast enough) and Varda never once challenges JR’s experience as image-maker. After all, it is he who has created this particular form. Soon enough they set off, seeking out the inhabitants of harbours, farmland, seaside and mining towns.
There are things that annoy Varda about JR: his refusal to remove his dark glasses (an affectation that reminds her of Godard); his tactless suggestion that they should start the project as soon as possible, the implication being that she might die at any moment. JR dislikes the way Varda tries to get behind his glasses, posing personal questions from the outset. These unedited disputes are not gratuitous: they give the documentary its self-reflexive flavour and form an important part of the way they work on the project. Varda seeks out and builds relationships with the subjects that JR photographs and together they decide on the composition, then JR pulls the shutter. Varda places herself off in the distance, in order to see the bigger picture, and tells JR how to centre the image he’s mounting on scaffolding.
A film about the injection of large metropolitan forms into small villages could easily be tokenistic. Yet Varda and JR get to know each of their subjects before taking the photograph, situating the person within their landscape. They become engaged in local politics, exploring the wide spectrum of viewpoints that exist in villages usually painted in homogenous provincial shades by city-dwellers.
They stay around after, too, to gauge the reaction of their subjects and those around them. When Jeanine, the last remaining resident on a street slated for demolition in a small mining town, tears up looking across the road to her house-sized face, Varda tells her not to be sad, that it was meant as a homage to her. A visit to a factory, where JR and Varda insist on photographing staff pulling faces together with their bosses, leaves a renewed working environment long after Varda and JR leave. At their last stop, Varda draws attention to the forgotten wives of dockworkers by choosing to photograph them instead of their husbands. She asks why one of them describes herself as being “behind” rather than “beside” her husband. Sometimes the project resembles performance art, as the photographed subject interacts with their blown-up body. And sometimes the photograph is already gone by the time Varda and JR get back in their van, as the tide comes in or it is washed away by the rain. The project is an end in itself; the encounter, not the photograph, is what matters.
Some critics have presumed that Visages, Villages is Varda’s last film, given the long interludes on her faltering eyesight and frequent musings on death. But Varda has always anticipated a future nostalgia and projected memories into the present tense, obsessively using the same decades-old photograph across films. As she puts it, she must take pictures of all the faces she meets, or else they will fall down the “memory-hole”.
Between village visits, Varda finds JR the perfect companion to help her complete her own bucket list. Against JR’s technical judgment, they mount a photo of her late friend Guy Bourdin’s face onto a concrete bunker on the beach where she and Bourdin met. Later, JR agrees with amused reluctance to another long-time wish: to recreate Godard’s Bande à part Louvre running scene with Varda in a wheelchair. And just when JR thinks that the project and the film has finished, Varda has a surprise for him: she has arranged for them to go to Switzerland and meet with Godard, the older man with the dark glasses. But when they arrive at his house in Switzerland, he is not there. Varda breaks down in tears: “And to think I brought him brioche from his favourite bakery.” JR, unable to work through a multi-decade relationship that is not his own, takes her to the edge of a lake where he takes off his glasses for her in an effort to cheer her up. Ironically, after all her demands, her eyesight doesn’t allow her to register his unadorned face. But again, it’s the encounter that counts. “I can’t see you, but I see you,” she tells him. As she says in her 2008 The Beaches of Agnes, “Je connais mes classiques et je connais mes amis”, I know my classics and I know my friends. She may have known Godard for most of her life, but it is JR who has taken up the latter role.
The film is the perfect antidote to Michel Hazanavicius’s Le Redoubtable, which played in competition this year. Supposedly based on Anne Wiazemsky’s first-person account of her relationship with Godard, it is instead a love letter from one male auteur to another, excusing Godard’s abusive tendencies towards Wiazemsky through reference to his genius, portraying her mute and naked in every other scene. Visages, Villages posits the auteur as not as a creator but as a bringer-together. Instead of the easy self-perpetuated mythology of the heroic individual, it celebrates the creativity that is generated by empathy, by moments of people coming together. Last week, we witnessed Varda and JR pulling faces and holding hands on the red carpet. Godard, it is rumoured, never replied to Hazanavicius’s letter.
Visages, Villages (Agnès Varda, JR, 2017). Daniella Shreir is editor of Another Gaze.