A Fortnightly Review of
Faces Places (Visages Villages)
Written and directed by Agnès Varda and JR.
PG | 1h 34min | Documentary | First released 28 June 2017 (France). UK release 21 September 2018.
By SIMON COLLINGS.
THERE IS NO plan, no script. The young French photographer and artist JR contacts the grand dame of independent French cinema, Agnès Varda. Later, she visits his studio in Paris. Out of their conversations, their shared interests, they agree to experiment together. In an early collaboration, they travel to a mining town in northern France, talk to local people, and find a terrace of former miner’s houses scheduled for demolition. An elderly woman, Janine, is the sole remaining resident in the street, refusing to leave. They paste pictures, towering figures as tall as the houses, of miners taken at the start of the twentieth century on the derelict buildings. They cover the front of Janine’s house with a photo of her face. When she sees it she is lost for words, overcome with emotion.
The method is quintessential Varda, the material for the film improvised out of chance encounters, events as they unfold, serendipity. The itinerary of the trips is planned, but only to a point. The mass of material generated in this way is then pored over in the editing suite, in a search for connections, recurring images, narrative threads. A sequence of staged discussions between Varda and JR, shot on location and in Paris, provides a structure for the material. The tapestry of the film is woven from these elements, each of the different episodes linked by a connecting image. A sequence about goats, for example, ‘reminds’ Varda of a photograph she took in the 1950s, which leads to them visiting the location where the photograph was taken. The boundaries between fiction and documentary are constantly blurred, what is chance and what is artifice never clear. The discussions between Varda and JR at times seem genuine, while other encounters are deliberately theatrical. This is typical Varda, forcing the viewer to question what they are seeing.
JR’S PRACTICE AS an artist is equally present in Faces Places. He started making graffiti art in his teens, then began photographing his friends in the act of creating graffiti, pasting up prints of these pictures, framed with spray paint, on city streets. From here the work evolved into creating large-scale portraits of people which he displays on the sides of buildings, making visible the faces of those we do not normally see. During the 2005 riots in the Paris suburbs, JR photographed young people he knew in these neighbourhoods and pasted large posters of their faces on the walls of more affluent areas of the city. His subjects pull faces, exaggerating the stereotypes of rioters portrayed in the mainstream media.
Common to the aesthetic of both artists is the use of still photographs and documentary film and video to challenge the dominant narratives of the media and commercial advertising. It is easy to see what drew JR to Varda’s work and how a collaboration developed between them. Both are interested in people, in the marginalised, in the stories which don’t get told. Their work is political but not didactic. Varda’s 1968 documentary, Black Panthers, presents the perspective of radicalised young African Americans fighting against police harassment, social discrimination and poverty. Her 1981 documentary Mur Murs (in English Mural Murals), focuses on the murals of Los Angeles. It includes the famous Great Wall of LA which tells the story of California from the point of view of the many communities — Hispanic, black, Chinese, women — absent in the official histories. Varda documents the use of murals as memorials for young people killed in gang fights, as expressions of community identity and resistance, as well as to advertise individual restaurants, bars, an ice-cream parlour. She allows the people she meets to articulate their experiences, inviting dialogue about the nature of the societies we live in.
After the trip to the mining town in Faces Places, Varda and JR make further forays into regional France, following up on personal connections, revisiting old haunts, scouting for potential subjects. ‘Chance has been my best assistant,’ Varda says. The filming takes place over 18 months, one week per month. They travel in JR’s ‘magic’ bus, a photo-booth on wheels which produces large posters out of an enormous slot on one of its sides. People sit in the back of the van to have their picture taken, or pose in the street. Walls on which the images are pasted are procured through negotiation. Props are scavenged – a parasol, a picture frame, a dress. There’s an entertaining scene in which a policeman tells them that pasting up the poster is fine but that they need a permit to erect scaffolding. He’s relaxed, jokes with them. JR says Agnès will pay the fine.
DURING THE ROAD TRIPS, and the many hours spent discussing where the project is going, the relationship between Varda and JR grows. The film captures their mutual enthusiasm, the tensions, the negotiations. Though Varda insists the film is about the people they met and photographed it is also a story of the two of them. JR had initially wanted the film to be a portrait of Varda, and the end result is a moving homage to her and her work. His energy, his admiration and evident affection for her were, one senses, critical to the making of the film. Her responsiveness to him, the shared openness, curiosity and playfulness are equally vital. The way they work together and the impact this has on the people they engage with is one of the most powerful aspects of the film.
The editing took five months, the process dominated by Varda. She had the expertise and experience, which JR readily conceded. But she insisted he be involved in commenting on the editing, which became another area of tension. In the Q&A sessions linked to preview screenings of the film,1 JR describes how Varda would reject everything he suggested, to the point where he decided he wouldn’t engage anymore. Eventually they compromised, with JR giving comments to the technician, leaving Varda to decide whether to ignore these or not. ‘I always respected your comments,’ Varda says at one point, but it’s clear that the final product is her film.
Varda exercised similarly tight control over Matthieu Chedid, the singer songwriter better known as –M–, who composed the sound track. Chedid is an award-winning musician with several film scores to his credit. JR describes in one of the Q&As how Varda pushed Chedid to rethink and recompose the music until she was happy with the result. Chance may be her best guide in the filming, but there is nothing casual about the post-production process in her work.
VARDA IS A STRONG woman, and her films often feature strong female leads. When JR persuades her to visit the docks at Le Havre with him, one of her first questions is ‘where are the women’? JR had worked on a previous project with the dockers, but the collaboration with Varda leads to a focus on the wives of three of the dock-workers. All are from families of dockers and one works in the docks as a truck driver. When one of the women speaks of standing ‘behind’ her husband during strikes, Varda asks ‘why not beside?’ and the women agree with her, ‘yes, beside’. JR and Varda celebrate the women by pasting their images onto a huge stack of containers – a monument to all the women in the dockers’ community.
The position of women in society has been an abiding concern of Varda’s work. In her earliest feature, La Pointe Courte, set in a small fishing community in the south of France, there’s an amusing scene where the men are holding a celebratory dinner after the annual jousting competition. The women come to summon them to the local dance, and watch them for a while through a crack in the door, laughing at their drunken antics. Sex equality features strongly in her documentary Black Panthers. Her 1977 feature L’une chante, l’autre pas (One sings, the other doesn’t) dramatizes the struggles of the women’s movement around abortion, a struggle Varda was actively engaged in herself. She was one of 343 women who signed the ‘Manifesto of 343’ in 1971, declaring that she had had an abortion at a time when this was illegal in France. Other public figures who signed included Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, and Françoise Sagan. The manifesto called for the legalization of abortion and free access to contraception. Abortion was made legal in France in 1975.
But Varda’s films, while challenging injustices, also celebrate female sexuality. In her film, Jane B. par Agnes V. (1986–87), the actress Jane Birkin talks about posing nude and her pleasure in being seen as beautiful. Jane B. is a multi-layered, complex film, improvised in much the same way as Faces Places. There’s no script. Varda and Birkin talk, and invented scenes evolve out of this. These are intercut with documentary material about Birkin’s life, including her as a mother and wife. We see her as both a private and shy person, happiest at home in scruffy clothes, and a woman who enjoys the role of celebrity.
In Cleo 5 à 7 (1974) a friend’s pleasure in being painted naked fascinates Cleo. The film tells the story of a young singer and ‘sex symbol’ who is waiting for the results of a biopsy. The roles being projected onto her by those around her she finds irksome, and she heads out on to the streets. In an interview with Kiva Reardon from earlier this year, Varda says of Cléo: ‘…when the film starts she’s just there to be looked at. When she takes off her wig and puts on her black dress and goes out, she’s the one who starts to look. Looking at others is the first step of feminism – not being selfish, not being mirror-oriented. Looking at other people. Discovering what they do to make a living. Or how they behave.’2
Earlier in the interview, when asked about the #MeToo movement, Varda says: ‘I’ve been with the feminist movement for years, and we have always said speak out, complain, scream. I have been marching in the street often since the 1960s and 70s. What’s happening now is good in a way because it pushes the women to say something…It’s good it’s become this sort of drama because of one man [Harvey Weinstein], that I disliked totally anyway. But changing society is three steps forward and then two back. Then one forward and then another back. Behaviours [sic] changes slowly – but it changes.’ JR, she says, exaggerates about art changing society, but it can, she believes, contribute to shifting attitudes.
For years Varda was largely ignored by both feminist writers and film historians, but in the last 20 years critical attention has begun to build.3 Her work has been related to the idea of ‘feminine writing’ articulated by Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, ideas which seek to undermine patriarchy by valuing the feminine as the ‘Other’. 4 The concept of the ‘feminine’ here extends beyond biological sex, and can be exhibited by both men and women. Julia Kristeva has linked this idea of the ‘feminine’ to a broader concept of the socially marginalised.
Varda says she hasn’t read any of the theory, and it would certainly be a mistake to see her work as an illustration of theory. But the concepts linked to ‘feminine writing’ are useful in thinking about her work. She is interested in the outsider generally, not just in women. Her powerful 1985 film Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi in French – ‘Without roof or law’) combines both sets of concerns in the enigmatic character of a young female drifter Mona, whose final weeks of life are reconstructed from the diverse testimonies of people who met her. It’s a film which asks tough questions about how we respond to people marginalised by society, people who are in difficulty, lost, and particularly how women in this situation are vulnerable to sexual abuse.
JR IS HIMSELF an example of how attitudes change over time. In the project ‘Women are Heroes’ he travelled to various countries photographing the women in poor communities and pasting large portraits of them on the roofs and walls of the settlements where they lived. Sometimes he just pasted up the eyes. Women’ faces looked out from a favela in Brazil, from a slum in Kenya, and from other cities – the project drawing attention to the roles of women, and challenging the violence and exploitation they experience. In Kibera, a slum in Kenya through which the railway line to Uganda passes, he placed images of the lower parts of women’s faces on an embankment and the eyes on the side of goods wagons. The images align momentarily as the trucks passed. The eyes of the women then travel on across Kenya towards Uganda.
The women involved in ‘Women are Heroes’ asked JR to tell their story to the world. At the end of the project he travelled to the docks in Le Havre and pictures of the women were pasted on to shipping containers by the dockworkers. Those images then departed on a ship bound for Malaysia, carrying the message of the project on the ocean. Interestingly, the Le Havre part of the project involved only male dock workers. It seems to have taken the visit with Varda for the role of women in the life of the dockers’ community to be made visible.
JR’s WORK HAS ITS roots in the community mural movements of Europe and the Americas which Varda documented in 1981 in Mur Murs. At the time, little critical attention had been paid to community murals.5Since then a significant body of commentary and research has emerged, particularly in the US, some of it focusing specifically on the role these kinds of art projects play in community empowerment. Several prominent figures from the movement have found work teaching in universities.
Much of the benefit from community art projects comes from the direct participation of the subjects in the making of the murals. In the early stages, the young artists involved in creating these works were responding to the absence of art by people of their ethnicity in museums and galleries. Excluded from the ‘official’ art world they looked to the streets of their neighbourhoods as venues to create art. Making murals often involved having to negotiate truces between warring gangs, breaking down barriers between people from different communities through the articulation of shared histories and grievances.
In time public money flowed into projects seeking to apply these experiences in other troubled communities, the projects becoming a vehicle for engaging with disaffected young people, teaching skills – both artistic and social – and creating public art which meant something to the local communities. These projects were frequently controversial, with deprived and marginalised communities often choosing to depict images which conservative, white Americans considered provocative and offensive. Public art projects remain a battleground today.
Judy Baca, who led the creation of the Great Wall mural in Los Angeles in 1977, and who Varda filmed in Mur Murs, is now a professor at UCLA. In a 2014 presentation at the University of Toronto, Baca gave a powerful account of the origins of her work as a community artist, and of the impact this had on her and those she worked with.6 She employed 80 young people from a range of communities to work on the mural, which was painted over five summers. The project included group-work sessions designed to break down barriers and build trust between the participants, including presentations from invited representatives of minority communities.
To get hired you had to have served at least one jail term. One young woman she hired, nicknamed ‘Ernie’, was 14 at the time, pregnant, on drugs, and written off by social workers as impossible. During the talk Baca screens a brief interview with Ernie 35 years on in which she talks about how working on the mural transformed her life. ‘This mural opened my eyes so much,’ she says. She remembers in particular a Holocaust survivor talking to them, and showing the tattoo on her arm. The desire to return to the project each summer kept her in school. Without the project, she says, ‘I don’t know where I’d be.’
FACES PLACES IS IN many ways a gentler film than some of its predecessors. The people who feature in the documentary are mostly the everyday citizens of France, neither superstars nor the extreme poor – though we do meet an elderly man, called Pony, who lives in a shack and makes art from found objects. But some of Varda’s perennial concerns are still there, and are clearly shared by JR. She notices that goats are having their horns burned off to make them more ‘productive’. We meet a woman with a herd of horned goats who believes animals should be respected and left as they are. Varda and JR like this woman. But we also hear from a farmer managing 2000 acres of land on his own using hi-tech farm machinery, and happy doing so. The film asks questions about what’s happening to agriculture, but in a way which is not dogmatic.
The impacts on people JR and Varda engage with are personal and individual. Janine, we learn from one of the Q&As, experienced that pasting up of the images of miners on her street as a sort of rite of passage, allowing her to finally let go and move out of her house. But some are more equivocal about the project’s effect on them. A shy waitress in a village café isn’t at all sure about her large portrait on the wall outside, though her young children love it. In a chemical factory, footage of workers celebrating being a ‘team’ is juxtaposed with an interview with a long-term employee about to plunge over the ‘cliff’ of retirement.
Varda and JR also pass through moments of doubt. On a beach in Normandy they paste an image of the photographer Guy Bourdin, taken by Varda in the 1950s, on to the side of an upended WWII German bunker. In the morning the image has been washed away by the sea, a result neither of them had anticipated. Seated on the windswept beach, wrapped in a coat, Varda worries that she may disappear before they complete the project. Her failing sight and physical weakness are recurring images in the film.
Towards the end of Faces Places she takes JR to Switzerland, to meet Jean-Luc Godard, with whom she’d been a close friend in the 1960s. This is supposed to be a gift to JR. The outcome is not what either expected.
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik (2017), and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, has just been released by The Red Ceilings Press.
- At the Curzon, London, and at the New York Film Festival.
- Interview with Kiva Reardon in Cléo.
- Among recent book-length studies see in particular, DeRoo, Rebecca J., Agnes Varda between film, photography and art, 2018. University of California Press; and Bénézet, Delphine (2014) The cinema of Agnes Varda: resistance and eclecticism, 2014. Wall Flower Press.
- Lee, Nam (2008), Rethinking feminist cinema: Agnès Varda and filmmaking in the feminine. Dissertation, University of Southern California.
- ‘We felt obligated to write in order to break through the near blackout of critical attention. Aside from extensive spot or human-interest coverage in local papers, the entire literature on contemporary murals consists of some dozen magazine articles, a few pamphlets, chapters in a few books, and a methods manual…’ Eva Sperling Cockcroft, James Cockcroft and John Pitman Weber (1977) Toward a People’s Art: The Contemporary Mural Movement, University of New Mexico Press, xxi.
- See ‘Arte Intimo, Arte Público: Spirit, Vision and Form’.