‘A place gets a face’ – Agnes Varda’s attentive compassion with the social

The French movie Faces, Places (‘Visages, villages’ – 2017) by Agnes Varda, well known for her films co-setting the trend for the Nouvelle Vague, and by JR, a young and enigmatic photographer and street artist, is a many layered documentary that makes you wake up with a smile in the morning.

In a light-hearted vein the documentary touches upon topics like the passing of time, old age, alienation, reminiscence and the end of life, as well as relationships, recognition and relatedness between generations.
Agnes Varda looks back upon her life and sets out to visit places in the four corners of France where she had ever worked, to meet again the people and see what has become of it all. JR helps her patiently as if she were his grandmother, whom we actually meet in the film. There is a sudden autobiographical aspect when we get to know about JR growing up in the care of his grandmother, which seems to shape his way of relating to Agnes Varda in their search for people and places in this roadmovie.

In their quest, Varda is clearly the director and JR her energetic ‘photograffeur’. Together they arrange surprisingly joyous photographic tableaus with people they mostly meet in the campagne, and so ‘places get faces’. To put it in more prosaic terms, impersonal and lifeless environments and objects are animated and thus radically and magically changed by huge portraits of local people, individuals and groups as well, pasted on walls, containers, trains, chimneys and so on. These kind of enlarged and wall-pasted photos are JR’s artistic trademark.

Even more interesting is the way Varda and JR get along with people to involve them in their projects. According to Varda, coincidence and inspiration in ‘the spur of the moment’ are their guidelines in these meetings with individuals and groups, most of them genuinely surprised and delighted by the ideas proposed to them by this rather eccentric duo. Both in the photographic results as in the process of preparing them, people open up, come together and enjoy being recognized, making their personal appearance in the huge wall-sized photos. Moreover, some photographic compositions (‘pastings’) not representing full-sized humans still bring about a humanizing effect, by their sheer poetic beauty contrasting the cold impersonal (mega)structures and vehicles they are pasted upon. As if by magic, life presence is there.

Attentiveness

In this movie, Varda shows us how direct spontaneous contact with people, without preconceived schemes and protocols, nonetheless driven by a genuine attentiveness towards life-situations, can unfold into surprising revelations of individuality, or even mutual bonds in a group.
In comparison with other famous directors of her ‘grand’ generation, Varda has always aimed at possible connections between people starting from, but not sticking to their mutual alienation. Antonioni, cinematographic master of modern detachment and isolation, did nothing but re-emphasize ill-fated contemporary human relations in his last farewell movie Beyond the Clouds. Is Places, Faces also a farewell by 90 year old Agnes Varda, gradually losing her eye-sight but certainly not her heartfelt compassion with people, and their disposition to be – temporarily – happy and to connect with each other?

In this respect, the final part of Faces, Places is very intriguing. Agnes Varda looks forward meeting Jean Luc Godard, her old-time friend and companion from the high tides of their career. She hasn’t seen him for decades, and is quite excited during the journey. When finally arriving at his place, together with JR, Godard seems to play one of his notorious tricks on her. Varda’s tears bring her and JR closer together.

The melancholy of this finale symbolizes the distance between Varda and most of her male colleagues in the grand old days of (post)modern cinema as the very human distance she has been striving to bridge all her career. Godard was close to Varda, also working with aspects of coincidence, momentariness and fragmentation as major conditions of modern existence. However with him, this leads mostly to (albeit necessary and inevitable) struggle, chaos and distress, whereas with Varda, these conditions emerge into possibilities for people to meet and open up to each other. Godard, eventually, could or would not let that happen between him and Agnes Varda, young JR however did.

Richard Brons
Madzy Dekema

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