Ode to Varda: Visages, Villages & the Art of Nostalgia
Agnès Varda is one of the most iconic filmmakers to ever grace our screens. In over 50 years of filmmaking, Varda refused to be branded, nor restricted by industry expectations: to that she said: Non! And dressed up as a potato for her 2003 exhibition at the Vienna Biennale (Patatutopia - not to be missed). Her work, across a multitude of media, was always deeply experimental and unique; Varda allowed herself to be guided by her constant curiosity for the world, as well as her deeply political drive for change, as an ardent Feminist and ally of the Black Panther movement (amongst many others). When she passed away in 2018, the film industry mourned the loss of an icon, but she lives on in her work, some of which I will share with you in this Ode to Varda column - in the hope you will grow to love her as I do.
There is something about Agnès Varda’s work that makes it better to start at the end. Her career spanned generations of filmmakers, blossoming in the age of the famed French New Wave (though she intentionally situated herself just outside of it), but continuing well beyond. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Varda has remained intensely, wonderfully relevant even into the last years of her long life. An auteur par excellence, every piece of work that Varda has created (short films, documentaries, art installations, and photography) are less an alignment with any particular movement or context—she is rarely seen moving with the crowd—but more like a small slice of her soul.
In her later years, this incredible body of work culminated in a unique form of cinematic life-writing: a varied series of reflective pieces tracking the evolution of her style and content, and reflecting upon it with the heart-warming nostalgia of a delectably bananas elderly woman. These final pieces are the perfect beginner’s springboard to plunge into the wonderful world of Varda, or, for those already well acquainted with her work, simply a place to bask in her wonderfulness. So this is where I’ll begin, at the end, with her final full-length film, and my favourite, Faces, Places, or Visages, Villages (2017): an ode to memories, to art, to film and to love.
Nothing about Agnès Varda is predictable, so naturally, her co-pilot (and first-ever co-director) for an artistic journey through rural France is none other than her new friend, the (then) 33-year-old JR. JR is a French street artist and photographer, or photograffeur [graffeur being French for graffiti artist], who illegally fly-posts large murals of ordinary people onto ordinary places, all while concealing his identity with a pair of statement black sunglasses. In the face of their age gap, the pair establish a playful and touching, almost familial bond that might rival that of grandmother and grandson.
It’s JR’s artistic concept that sits at the heart of this documentary, as the pair travel the country in his purpose-made van-come-photobooth, photographing the people they meet, and exhibiting them on enormous scales around their villages, workplaces, and even their own homes. The idea delights Varda, allowing her to permanently record the new people they encounter, so that they, in her words, ‘don’t fall down the holes of [her] memory’.
It should be noted here: this documentary does not shy away from sentimentality. Alongside the unsuspecting locals (and goats) they plaster onto their surroundings, Varda traces the country with her own personal memories, sharing stories of friends and colleagues, many of whom have now passed, reliving their famed filmography with charming, albeit cheesy, recreations (see clip below), or even attempting to resurrect them in two-dimensional enormity at the site of their shared memories, a kind of physical memory map plotted along the contour lines of a long, lived history.
In the face of her 90 years of age, Varda is not opposed to discussing her own seniority and impending mortality, being ribbed for it even, accepting the decline of her body, eyes and mind with grace and even humour, and treating it with such a grounded frankness that she does not invite pity, rather admiration.
The pair flit from town to town, skirting all the areas most would recognise in France, in favour of locations typically untouched by artists: remote goat farms, abandoned mining villages, cargo shipping ports, all resulting in a unique artistic celebration of the kinds of modest people who least expect it. A stalwart of the mining community is plastered onto the house she refuses to leave for its destruction, the under-celebrated wives of the predominantly male port workers tower over husbands and their colleagues, splayed across several enormous shipping containers, an entire village shares a baguette along a broad billboard, and an antique couple are reinstated upon the wall of their marital home. Each monument to the modest inspiring delight - or at least bemused astonishment - amongst the subjects, their friends and families.
There is one particular section of the film that, in my eyes at least, sits apart from the rest. In Normandy, the pair navigate intersections of lived moments, all borne from this beach in northern France. Here, they explore the many intertwining layers of history, palimpsests of personal and political, private and collective memory, all washed up on the same shores. This beach reminds both Varda and JR of happy times, though decades apart: for Varda this is the location of one of her favourite photographs, Ulysse, which formed the base of inspiration for a short film of the same title, as well as times well spent with her good friend and fellow photographer, Guy Bourdin. The younger JR reflects on his time spent racing up and down the sand on his motorcycle, discovering the fallen bunker which he designates as the canvas for their next mural.
The bunker itself is a fascinating starting point. The site of local political trauma during the Second World War, the local mayor explains how the community later pushed it from the cliff as an act of retrospective resistance. Happily, Varda suggests her photo Ulysse as the subject for this next mural, only to have her hopes quashed by the practical artistry of JR, who cannot fit the image to the face of the bunker. She opts instead for a photo of her late friend Bourdin sitting on the same beach, a beautifully tranquil photograph, a pose which JR recreates for the documentary (see below).
Despite being charmed by this re-enactment from a fondly remembered past, the revivification of an admired friend, Varda’s ageing body restricts her ability to stand in the strong winds and she retreats to the safety of shelter. Sentimentality aside, the reality of the documentary only reminds us of the irrevocably historic, static nature of Bourdin’s photograph, and the irredeemability of Varda’s youth.
The original Bourdin photograph is finally pasted onto the bunker, and the pair pose for a photo which Varda later hangs on her dining room wall, adding a final layer to the intricate mise-en-abyme of memory that this beach holds, fixing a transitory moment into filmic permanence. These scenes hold an emotional, melancholic and quite beautiful tone, even in the somewhat dismal surroundings of an overcast, windy beach in northern France. As they return the next morning, they find the image washed away by the tides, and are touched by the brevity of the artwork’s existence: beautiful yes, but ephemeral nonetheless.
All the charm of this celebration - magnification even - of the ordinary is not without some criticism however. In a rather scathing article, Erika Balsom writes on the somewhat tone-deaf treatment of these areas by the artistic pair, claiming the locations are ‘marked by the exploitation, economic hardship, and the creeping precariousness characteristic of many working-class communities in the 21st century.’ Balsom criticises the superficiality with which the artists gloss over these issues, in favour of ‘offering an amusing and enjoyable illusion that covers over less palatable realities that lie beneath’. This attitude is completely uncharacteristic of Varda’s typically socially-engaged form of artistry, though perhaps quite common for JR’s practice (which he claims to be engaging, but admits to not being engaged).
It’s not that I disagree with any of Balsom’s (very valid) points, but perhaps there is space in this film and in these locations ‘blighted by greed’ for this ‘superficiality and light-heartedness’ to allow them to become depoliticised, if just for a short moment, and for these politically-abandoned citizens to see themselves celebrated as the centre of cultural attention, rather than simply the stars of a bleak news segment about the grave implications of urbanisation on rural France. These artworks offer a rare focus on the individual, elevating a single ordinary person to the status of a monument. This is a welcome turn away from a sociopolitical landscape determined to categorise each person to a homogenous group. Rather than decrying the struggles of the ‘working class’, Varda and JR celebrate the individual figures who make up these broadbush categories, for their very uniqueness.
The final segment is a rare moment in which this chipper façade crumbles, all for the better, when Varda plans a small excursion to Switzerland, to introduce her new friend to an old one. JR’s statement sunglasses are an almost kitschy motif of the film, along with Varda’s desperation to see underneath them, as his hidden identity evokes memories of her good friend Jean-Luc Godard’s similar penchant for disguise. They arrive at his home (after having made an appointment to see him), only to find the shutters closed up and a cryptic note on the door, which makes reference to her heavily-mourned, late husband. Varda’s aged eyes fill with tears, the tangible hurt upon her face breaking through the glimmer of the documentary’s cheery surface layer: though a famous, celebrated and aged artist, she is still deeply human, fallible, damageable. JR, having grown to understand the inner workings of this quirky woman, offers her a profoundly compassionate consolation: Godard has simply offered a final piece to the documentary’s ‘screenplay’, something more interesting than a plain meeting of friends old and new.
This ending only makes Varda all the more loveable, accessible even, as she cuts through the glamour of her fame and success, through the selectively positive gaze of her documentary, to show her authentic self. Varda is unashamed to reveal the genuineness of her character, which indeed makes her one of the most adored filmmakers of all time, for both her work and the unadulterated humanity with which she treats the world.
This unlikely pair have created a whimsically wonderful piece of work that broadcasts and celebrates the often unseen. This documentary strays from that which we would typically expect from Varda, deviating from her usual political engagement and often eccentric filming style in favour of a lighter tone, one that charmingly channels Varda’s own sense of curiosity at the world, and at the art of film and photography, directly to the viewer. Varda’s later films, such as this one, are a testament to half a century of brilliant filmmaking. They weave a tapestry of her long and fascinating life, fixing her memories onto film like the murals they fix onto the walls and buildings, tableaus to the life and work of Varda for us all to enjoy for many years to come.
Sophie Becker is the Founder of Blister. She is a self-confessed project-aholic and tends to keep her fingers in [too] many pies. In her spare time Sophie is frequently found scraping the barrel of her boyfriend’s mum’s Netflix account to hate-watch a new series she believes is unrepresentative and unfeminist, and is much less often found on any of the platforms that produce the European art films she actually does like: corporate VOD monopolies are a bitch.