Varda’s Faces Places

September 26, 2018 § Leave a comment

At the start of Faces Places we see a sequence of small, playfully constructed scenes where Agnès Varda, aged 88, and her co-director JR, aged 33, might have met. In fact their meeting was engineered by Varda’s daughter, Rosalie, who produced the film. JR is a not a filmmaker but a photographer – which was how Varda began her career – known for his gigantic images pasted onto public structures or politically declarative spaces. Varda was inspired by JR’s work, seizing on its possibilities and steering it exclusively towards the portrait. So begins a small odyssey, a little in the manner of The Gleaners & I (2000), with the two collaborators criss-crossing France in JR’s camera van.
In the North-East they visit a deserted mining village and photograph its one remaining inhabitant, Jeannine, the elderly daughter of a miner, who recalls her father’s working life. She’s moved to tears by the house-height portrait covering the front of her home (pasting such huge poster images around pipes and over rough brickwork is clearly a highly-skilled business). From here Varda follows the local trail of ex-miners or their elderly children, talking and prompting memories, sometimes with old postcards from her prodigious collection.
At a chemical factory, workers on separate shifts finally come collectively together in the choreography of two mirroring images. Later, at Le Havre container port, Varda interviews three dockworkers’ wives, one of them a lorry driver. This trio of black-clad blondes winds up as 60-feet women on one side of a massive container mountain.
A rural postman in the South enjoys the sociability of his job, a farmer relishes the solitary nature of his, brought about by dramatic advances in technology; with an array of high-tech machinery he now farms alone a much bigger acreage than what needed four or five people some 20 years ago. Conversations intimate how work changes landscapes and people; they illuminate the little-known goat-horn controversy: goats farmed for their milk now have their horns removed because it makes them easier to manage. One dairy woman detests this practice, and she shuns mechanised milking, preferring the more contemplative manual kind.
In the Vaucluse hill town of Bonnieux, Varda and JR find a waitress frequently snapped by tourists. They transform her beyond her tourist-selfie self into a free-spirited, perhaps fin-de-siècle, lady with a long dress and a parasol, her photographed bare toes tickled by her two little boys. As elsewhere, everything is staged and we see the staging: the discussions, the search for props, the often fraught logistics. People get involved and lead to other people; the man who comes up with the parasol turns out to be the bell ringer. He isn’t photographed but filmed from below performing a wonderfully energetic carillon against the open sky above the bell tower.
The giant images are subject to wind and rain and sunlight, their ephemerality demonstrated overnight by the effects of tide on a Normandy beach where Varda’s photograph of a now dead friend becomes a poster to fit the side of a wartime bunker. She commemorates more old friends: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martine Franck, Nathalie Sarraute. She is present and part of the story.
She still has all her quick wits about her and a generous, engaging personality undiminished by age, along with certain physical limitations that call for a helping hand from a co-director. There’s no point in wondering what the film would have been like if entirely in Varda’s control, since this particular film could only have been made with JR. The pairing works, despite JR’s sometimes condescending supercool-street-artist banter. In the end it’s Varda’s film, her humour and her insights, her dialogues with the new faces she meets, her close-ups. One conversation at the chemical factory is with a man who tells her it’s his last day at work. The film camera moves in tight to capture his smiling wrinkles, his joy in not knowing what retirement will hold, and an eruption of vitality. The faces, the portraits delivered by that camera, bring their subjects alive just as those produced on paper make a gift to them, more fragile but preserved with pictures of themselves beside themselves, ultra-selfies.
Whimsy creeps in, clearly encouraged by JR, who is more enthusiastic than Varda about the photographed fish he wraps around a water tower. Her whimsy is creative play, ever inventive, bent on seeing anew. And with it she communicates the reality of how she sees now. What’s it like to be losing that faculty? She shows us, laughing, how her sight’s failing, having blurry people hold up great big blurry letters in front of her eyes, and we laugh too.
This, like Varda’s other documentaries, is at heart a work of the imagination, where she fuses cinema’s two-stranded origins in the documentary films of the Lumière brothers and Meliès’ fantastical trips to the moon. She’s one of cinema’s magicians.
At times the film is a squeeze away from being sentimental, but it doesn’t succumb. The tone is never elegiac, though towards the end nostalgia prevails. I confess to it taking me by surprise earlier in the film, as Varda and JR sit chatting on a bench, in front of them a fabulous view they seem not to notice. It’s been raining and the ground is puddled but the air is clear. In the foreground are the spiky crosses of the clifftop cemetery beside the little church of St Valery, at Varengeville; Georges Braque is buried there. I have my own photograph of this same view, taken 30 years ago, with a second-hand Pentax that only blotted out the crested sea and the distant curve of the cliffs we see in the film. In those days I spent time in nearby Dieppe and we would often take the cliff walk from there. I haven’t been back since.
From the Normandy coast to the Provençal fields of lavender and sunflowers, Faces Places shows us a very different country from the one on this side of the Channel. Its ‘Places’ are ‘Villages’ in the French title, and this is the French countryside, and whatever industry it has left .
To lift Varda’s spirits in a moment of sadness JR photographs her eyes and her toes; they decorate the tanks of a goods train that trundles off into the night. Eyes and toes: body parts much favoured by the Surrealists. The power of the former to receive the whole world, the lowly earthbound status of the feet that carry us to it. Varda is 90 now and may never make another film, but this genius of seeing and showing isn’t giving up. She still has plans.

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