Words

David Jenkins

Visages Villages – first look review

Agnès Varda douses the French landscape with art with the help of her new friend JR in this wonderfully eccentric road movie.

She is an 88-year-old film directing icon with a two-tone purple rinse. He is a 33-year-old photographer and conceptual artist who likes to wear a silly little trilby hat. Together, the amble around the French countryside and visit small towns and allow their imagination to run amok. Then they explain the motivations of their striking public installations to local people to see how they react.

That is, in a salted nutshell, the extremely charming and original new film from Agnès Varda, who is joined by the perma-shaded and like-minded scamp, JR, on her whimsical journey to who-knows-where. They ride across the landscape not to force their art into people’s faces, but to humanise dead spaces and bring richness and vitality where there is none. What they do is breathe life into buildings and structures towards which your eyes would never need to naturally glance.

They find a wall and they paste up a giant photograph, often arguing about the intentions and the result. Their art is inclusive, as it connects local people to the spaces they inhabit, hopefully even changing lives. These happenings are carefully staged and crafted, much like the dialogue between Varda and JR. The subjects they rope in also occasionally speak scripted lines, like the pair are transforming rural France into one gigantic community theatre project.

Varda meets a woman, the wife of a miner who now lives alone in a shabby red brick house that’s been earmarked for demolition. They paste an image of her on the exterior as a symbol of her stoic defiance. Varda then hugs her and whispers, “we’re friends now”. The chatting and bickering throw up the odd profound observation or daffy aside, but there’s no sense the film is being made to fit into a pre-existing thesis.

It’s a journey to celebrate people and places, and to just look at life beyond the city. The couple idolise the workers and artisans, but also celebrate the women behind the men. And at the point that you think this film has settled on its agreeably cosy laurels, one final big trick is revealed. So annoyed is Varda with the fact that JR won’t remove his sunglasses, she whisks him down to Rolle in Switzerland and meet an old acquaintance who also had a thing for covering his eyes: Jean-Luc Godard.

In that astounding final sequence Varda takes serious stock of her life, expressing sadness that her physical ailments have prevented her from maintaining a valuable dialogue with the people she loves. Godard, the merry prankster, rounds things off on a note of bittersweet resentment, but the film’s spirit of creation and connection is strong enough to shine through the shade.

Published 20 May 2017

Tags: 100 Great Films by Female Directors Agnès Varda Cannes

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