'Visages Villages' a Playful Passing of the Torch

dir. Agnès Varda—5 Stars

Agnès Varda may well be done making movies, but “Visages Villages (Faces Places)” gives audiences plenty to hope for. Not only is it clear that the brilliant and playful mind that has made Varda into the living legend of cinema that she is remains undimmed, but she has found for us a new guard, ready to step into the light. Her partner in the film is an anonymous French photographer and visual artist called JR. He has achieved renown in his own right—his first film, ‘Women Are Heroes’, was in Cannes in 2010—but his collaboration with Varda sends him to the forefront of visual art.

The film takes the form of an unlikely buddy comedy, as Varda, 88, and JR, 33, travel around the French countryside in JR’s van/mobile photo booth. They find empty walls in small towns, and find an image with which to beautify them. On a row of empty houses, they paste the photos of the miners who once lived there. Around the corner from a café, they erect a picture of one of its baristas, parasol in hand. This type of art is JR’s specialty, and he and Varda work together on each piece.

All along their trip, there are signs of progress, of leaving the past behind. Varda and JR celebrate those who have moved forward, recognize those who have stayed behind, and remind us of those who have been forgotten. A farmer who is able to work 2000 acres by himself gets a portrait on the side of his barn, while another who refuses to burn the horns off her goats is honored with a massive image of one of her animals. At other times, the pair are there simply to beautify, as in the factory they decorate with fish and group photos of the workers.

At every stop, Varda and JR interview a diverse and interesting group of people, from a church bellringer to a man one day from retirement. They clearly went into “Visages Villages” with little planned, but the openness to discovery marks the work of both artists. Individually, they go into the world ready to document and expand upon what they find. Together, that instinct is only amplified.

Of course, Varda and JR sometimes just talk. Sitting in front of beautiful landscapes, or just in Varda’s kitchen, they discuss ar or the film they are making, and engage in some playful verbal sparring. One subject that comes up repeatedly is Varda’s age, and declining sight. One of the most striking moments in the film is a shot of people holding up letters, sized and arranged to look like a vision chart. The bottom, smaller letters, are blurred out, while only the largest remain clear. Still unsatisfied, Varda asks them to shake the letters up and down. She then turns to the camera and says that this is what her vision looks like.

“Visages Villages” is a film like no other; less a neat story than a series of vignettes connected only by the fascinating personalities that have created them. It is first and foremost a celebration—of the passing of time, the fading of the old, and rise of the new. No easy and simple truths are forced upon the audience, and the pair come to no real conclusion. They are explorers in art, uninterested in such things. For Varda, this may be her last outing, and she makes it count.

—Staff writer Ethan B. Reichsman can be reached at ethan.reichsman@thecrimson.com.

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