Review by Moira Sullivan
Visages Villages (2017). 89 minutes. Directed by Agnès Varda. Featuring: Agnès Varda and JR.
Agnès Varda won L’Oeil d’Or, le prix du documentaire (“The Golden Eye”), at Cannes on May 27 for her latest film, Visages Villages, produced by Varda’s production company, Ciné Tamaris, and Rosalie Varda.
The style of the film is not unlike The Gleaners and I (2000), for it emphasizes the things we take for granted, the people we don’t know about, and the heroic people behind the scenes who are worthy of our attention. Varda teams up with French street artist JR and travels throughout parts of France in a van with a huge camera painted on the side. They take notice of the virtues of work and those whose work is virtuous. The two meet by chance, it would appear—at least that is what the documentary would have us believe—and both are enraptured by each other’s artistry. JR is known for creating huge posters on the edifices of buildings or objects, even though they may later disappear due to the forces of nature.
Some of the projects they undertake are mesmerizing. Varda and JR meet women who work in a cargo ship container company, and each of them is photographed, with their images pasted onto the containers stacked on each other, reaching an incredible height. The brick homes of a mining ghost town that once was thriving are brought to life when a woman who refused to move is photographed. Her image is pasted onto her home, and the neighbors remark how it has made a difference to be remembered. A huge piece of metal from a ship on a beach gets a facelift, but by the next morning, it is gone.
While it is interesting to acknowledge these workers among workers, Varda encounters one setback when she arrives at the home of old friend, Jean Luc Godard, with JR, his favorite pastries from a local bakery in hand. As expected, Jean Luc refuses to answer the door. With cameraperson in tote and a stranger to the Swiss filmmaker, Godard refused to come to the door. Varda is extremely disappointed and calls Godard “a stinker”. Maybe he is, but seeing him would have given an entirely different completion to the film.
Visages Villages is colorfully illustrated with animation depicting the voyages of Varda and JR in the beginning and end of the documentary. Their work is extraordinary and humbling, evoking the reverence which Varda holds for discarded objects. It is not that art remains for posterity, but that we remember and acknowledge art in the moment.