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Agnès Varda on inequality, Godard and working with JR

Agnès Varda on inequality, Godard and working with JR

September 17
16:34 2018

“Chance has always been my best assistant,” says Agnès Varda in her new documentary Faces Places. It’s a typically humble and honest statement from the 90-year-old film-maker but borne out by the film, a delightfully rambling heart-warmer with no fixed destination, co-directed with the photographer-artist JR.

In the 1960s, with films such as Cléo from 5 to 7 and Le Bonheur, Varda became one of the leading lights of the French Nouvelle Vague — this despite being the movement’s only Belgian, and its only woman. Later, she embraced stark social commentary with 1985’s powerful Vagabond. In recent years she has focused her gaze on non-fiction subjects, including herself in 2008’s superb The Beaches of Agnès.

Now the diminutive and puckish director has found a perfect foil in JR, an open and energetic French millennial 55 years her junior, best known for pasting momentous murals on to everything from trains and ruins to water towers. Together they criss-cross the campagne in his “magic van” — a photographic studio and print shop on wheels — making portraits of villagers, benign interventions, and frequent detours and digressions. The results are humorous, touching, sometimes even profound.

When I meet the pair, Varda is keen to give credit to the locals who collaborated with them and shaped the film’s course with their ideas, reactions and stories. “You see the imagination and the help,” she says. “Like in Le Havre, it was a time of strikes, and so the dockworkers gave us their time to build that Lego thing, which is incredible.” (“That Lego thing” is in fact a vast tower of shipping containers on to which Varda and JR pasted images of the dockers’ wives.) “If a production would ask for that, it would take an enormous budget. So it’s a way of mixing reality, pleasure, imagination and the goodwill of people.”

JR says that Varda’s willingness to embrace “whatever can happen” is “a big inspiration” but admits it can also be nerve-racking. “The truth is, when you’re in it, it sometimes isn’t easy. We were really worried because we had no idea where we were going. For more than half of the movie we didn’t know. But we thought: you know what, it doesn’t matter. We’re having a great time, let’s continue.”

Varda faces her younger self

Perhaps because of that, the resulting film exudes a warming bonhomie and often seems as much about its makers as their putative subjects. “Officially it’s more about them, but we couldn’t prevent the fact that we got along and it’s fun to have the relationship clear,” says Varda.

At this point JR gives her a quizzical look. “At which moment in the film did we get along?” he asks. Varda isn’t taking the bait, but I suggest there seemed to be at least one or two. Either that or they put on a good show for the camera. “Yes, she’s a professional, you know,” laughs JR, “she knows how to act friendly with me.”

As well as providing moments of playful humour, the double act affords the film a novel dynamic. Their narration takes the form of a conversation; two artists of different generations in dialogue. “You’re playing the wise grandma,” he chides her affectionately at one point. “And you’re playing the spirited young man,” she counters.

The meeting of old and new is a recurring theme, and often made manifest in the ways technology has affected country life. “We’re slowly changing our whole way of living, especially in big cities, the way we interconnect,” says JR. “We actually disconnect with each other in a much bigger way than people in villages. They keep a real connection, a more physical connection.”

Varda and JR with one of the murals they installed in ‘Faces Places’

But Varda rejects a romanticised notion of the past — and of rural life. “In the country before television, can you imagine the loneliness and the silence?” she asks. “In the evenings, I remember people would say: shall we stay a little longer? It was like 9pm, 9.30pm. They would sit a little longer in the kitchen, not even speaking. Then the TV came and people and families started to have that connection. Then came the smartphone. So it has changed. People are no longer totally lonely.”

The film business, too, has changed since Varda made her first feature, La Pointe Courte, in 1955. Some have argued that she was New Wave avant la lettre but in the decades that followed she was often sidelined in favour of male contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and even her late husband Jacques Demy.

More recently there have been efforts to redress the balance. In 2015 Varda became the first woman to be awarded an honorary Palme d’Or but, bafflingly, when Faces Places premiered in Cannes last year, it wasn’t selected for the festival’s competition. Nevertheless, it became a critical favourite and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars.

At that same Cannes, each film was preluded by a rolling red-carpeted staircase of great names from the festival’s past. I tell Varda that at the 20 or so screenings I attended, I spotted the names of just three women: Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion and Agnès Varda. “It’s unfair,” she says. Yet overall her tone is optimistic about the status of women in the movie business. “I’m impatient but it’s moving. History is very slow in everything. It goes ahead and then back, ahead and then back. I’ve seen some steps ahead for feminism, then it slowed down. Now it’s starting again. So, it’s changing but it takes time.”

Not everything or everyone changes for the better, of course. One of the more melancholy moments in Faces Places occurs when Varda takes JR to see Godard in his Swiss village. I will avoid spoilers, but let’s just say the meeting doesn’t go to plan. Has she heard from Godard since? “The door is closed,” she says. “We were friendly. I would like to be in his head to know what happened. I don’t even know if he watched the film. Maybe he didn’t. Knowing him, he’s able not to have looked at it.”

There is a hint of resignation in her voice but then a flash of defiance. “But, look, it’s my film,” she says. “You know in Film Socialisme [2010] he stole some of my shots, pictures that I took.” He didn’t ask permission? “Well, he wrote to me and said he had done it. I said fine.”

What is striking about the Godard scene is Varda’s willingness to roll the dice, roll the camera and accept the outcome, whatever it may be. “I have always been like this,” she says. “I am ready if something happens, and it did in every documentary I made: in my street, in Los Angeles, in countries where I know nobody.”

“It’s a state of mind,” suggests JR. “Yes,” agrees Varda. “That’s the enjoyment of doing something related to documentary more than fiction. I’ve done some fiction in my life, sure, but the more I age, the more I feel that real people are very interesting.”

‘Faces Places’ is in UK cinemas from September 21 and on Netflix in the US

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