During the Women in Motion talks at Cannes this year, Isabelle Huppert had this to say about female directors (of whom, it must be said, she has worked with quite a few): “Male directors go on the highway. Women have to take the side roads. But they are freer on the side.”
Directors Agnès Varda, JR
One female director who has always fiercely cruised the backroads of the film industry, gobbling up every inch of freedom to fuel her furiously independent and idiosyncratic cinema, is Agnès Varda. As Huppert was divulging her experiences and desires (Kelly Reichardt, take note: she wants to work with you!), further along the Croissette Varda’s first new film in nine years, Visages Villages, was unspooling.
Until her honorary Palme d’Or in 2015, you always had the feeling that Varda had been somewhat overlooked by Cannes (her husband and filmmaker Jacques Demy collected the Palme d’Or in 1964). Only a handful of her films (Cléo de 5 à 7, Mur murs, The Beaches of Agnès) have been showcased here and even one of her greatest, The Gleaners and I, was relegated to an ‘out of competition’ screening (though this speaks equally of Cannes’ documentary blindspot). Indeed, Visages Villages, her first new film in nine years, this year receives the same treatment. Throughout her long career, Varda has received much greater recognition at other festivals – it was at Venice where she won the Golden Lion for Vagabond in 1985. (And perhaps, as cinema’s premier cat lover, she cherished that Lion as much as the belated golden frond from Cannes.)
If, like I, you had any worries that by collaborating with an artist like JR (whose large-scale photographic murals rather pale in comparison to Varda’s filmic folk art) Visages Villages would dilute Varda’s spirit, fear not: from the moment she appears with a cat perched on her shoulder in the opening credits she steals the show. JR has some cheeky chutzpah about him, and their bickering and banter bring a nice chemistry to the film, but it’s Varda who wants their documentary collaboration to have no plan: “Chance has always been my best assistant.”
And it’s she who decides that their road trip in JR’s camera-van (a photo booth that prints out large-scale portraits of its subjects) will encompass the French countryside and its villages rather than cities. Together they collaborate taking photographs of the people they find, from goat farmers to factory workers, enlarging them and displaying these huge black and white tributes on the walls of their subject’s homes and workplaces. Varda’s aim: “To meet new faces so I don’t fall down the holes in my memory.”
Outsiders and women have always been at the heart of Varda’s cinema and that holds here: when she and JR visit the grave of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Varda dedicates equal attention to fellow shutterbug Martine Francke, whose tombstone stands next to her husband’s. Later it is Varda’s idea to usher the wives of the Le Havre dockworkers into the all-male space of the port, emblazoning their giant figures on the sides of shipping containers. “Why do you say you stand behind your husband?” she queries one of the wives when they are discussing recent strikes at the dock. “Don’t you mean beside?”
Inevitably, the film is a memory trip for the 88-year-old: she revisits and remembers places and people she has photographed, and in some of the most lovely scenes recalls films and filmmakers (Godard looms large) from her past. If some of the art occasionally falls on the hokey side, the film’s piece de resistance is the pair re-enacting the Bande á part Louvre scene with Varda flying through the museum in a wheelchair.
That the tone of the film is mostly breezy and charming leaves you quite unprepared for the sharp, brutal jab of its ending – a surprise that I won’t ruin here. The only nagging sense of sadness that permeates their capers throughout is the spectre of Varda’s increasing mortality as she struggles to mount stairs or to see clearly. Her indefatigable spirit invariably triumphs, though. “I think about it a lot,” she replies when JR asks her if she is scared of death. “I’m looking forward to it.” Watching the film, you really hope it won’t be her last.