This is the question posed to Agnes Varda by a railway worker about the street artist JR pasting pictures of her wrinkled eyes and toes onto a train. This month we go to the world of French Cinema, documentaries and women in film with one of my favorite movies from last year, Faces Place (2017). While this movie was being made the directors JR and Agnes Varda were 33 and 88 years old respectively. While Varda’s vision is starting to fail her, she and her street artist friend go to the French countryside to give her one last feast for her eyes.
JR’s medium is to take photographs, print them on a huge scale and paste them on the sides of buildings, or rocks or shipping containers. While JR is creating that art, they get the stories of their subjects, either life stories or their stories of seeing themselves at such a large scale.
The art of the murals is really great whether it’s a whimsical photograph of a woman with a parasol or stock pictures of fish on the side of a water tank. JR is an internationally known street artist. Shepard Fairey referred to JR as “the most ambitious street artist working.”
This movie echos old French films and it’s not just because Agnes Varda is one of the last active directors from the French New Wave. It makes references to Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) while Agnes is in an eye appointment. JR later replicates what she sees with blurry vision using people holding giant letters on steps to recreate a vision test.
The Pixies make a lot of references to French movies in their songs. Wave of Mutilation seems to be about Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and at one point had a fan made music video that perfectly cut in scenes from the movie to the song.
Godard plays a mostly unseen role in Faces Places. Agnes mentions that JR’s personal uniform of a brimmed hat and sunglasses to maintain his anonymity and his creativity remind her of her old friend Godard. This is early in the film when JR mentions the influence of Agnes’ movies Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) and Mur Murs (1981) on his own work. We see a clip from Cleo where a young Godard plays a silent film actor that the characters watch in a short movie.
Agnes really wants JR to meet Godard before they are too old for any kinds of meetings but the climactic moment of this documentary is of Agnes finding an insulting letter at Godard’s home where he stands them up. She wanted JR to meet this genius of French cinema, yet he is witness to his cruelty. Agnes says about Godard as they leave his house “I know you and I like you, you dirty rat.”
This cruelty really is a fitting experience of the works of Godard. He treated his movies as cons on the audience. In Weekend (1967), a amazing long shot of a humorous traffic jam of vacationers, playing children, picnickers, bickering drivers and more for a sustained shot of several minutes. The scene concludes with the main characters speeding past the cause of the jam, a grizzly multi-car accident with blood, death and fire. While the movie seems to poke humor at violence and relationships in this surreal dystopian French countryside, it ends in a disturbing scene of chaos and cannibalism. The tone of the movie is much like the Childish Gambino video for This is America of playfulness and nightmarish chaos. Weekend was supposed to be Godard’s last movie before retiring from directing and he ends it with the statement “The End… of Cinema.” It’s quite self absorbed to proclaim his career to have been the entirety of the medium of cinema.
Godard was a great filmmaker. Breathless (1960), his first feature length movie, is considered to be one of the earliest and most influential movies of the French New Wave (although Truffaut’s The 400 Blows came out the year before). The French New Wave and the Italian Neorealist movement were the predecessors of the American movies of the 1970’s.
Godard made beautifully shot and creative movies. Alphaville (1965) is a film noir detective story set in a dystopia on another planet with computers that interrogate prisoners. It’s a convincing sci-fi movie that uses no special effects. Pierrot Le Fou (1965) is a murder rampage musical that ends with the main character strapping TNT to his head. It’s a movie that leaves bloody and burned bodies in the wake of a couple running away from their lives.
It’s been very recently that I’ve gone worn a rabbit hole of watching Varda’s movies. I think I’ve been connecting with her films much like I have been enjoying Sidney Lumet’s movies lately. I think I enjoy similar aspects from both directors, their camera movements, storytelling, and their voice. I think “voice” is almost like saying “they’ve got good intangibles” that distinguishes their movies from anyone else’s. For Lumet it’s the theme of justice, and for Varda, it seems to be a theme of humanity.
Four of Varda’s films, Cleo From 5 to 7 (1965), Mur Murs (1981), Vagabond (1985), and Faces Places (2017) show the wide breadth and longevity of her career. I watched Faces Places first without really knowing much about Varda as a filmmaker and loved it. In the comments of my Letterboxd review someone mentioned that I should check out another documentary about murals by her, Mur Murs. It’s a record of the murals of Los Angeles during the 1980’s, from high art to after school projects. Varda looks at the artists and their works as illustrative of their individual touches on humanity. JR mentions at the beginning of the movie that this movie was an inspiration for becoming a street artist. It’s a weird movie, mostly because L.A. in the Eighties was the height of neon non-irony culture and Varda only needed to point her camera at it.
Cleo From 5 to 7 is the story of a late afternoon for a French singer in Paris. It takes place between the time that she visits a tarot card reader to tell her future and when she gets results back from her doctor. The card reading is in vibrant color during the title sequence and the rest of the movie is in beautiful black and white. We get to know Cleo as a self absorbed young woman who is surrounded by mirrors. As the movie plays out there are fewer and fewer mirrors and we get to know her as a more introspective person interested in more than just listening to her own song and talking about superficial things. I really fell in love with this movie, the look of the black and white, the use of mirrors to create a split screen effect, and the character of the camera as it shows this woman’s story.
While Cleo is a very glamorous woman pondering death, Vagabond is the story of a homeless woman, Mona, as we piece together her life after she is found dead. It is almost a parallel to the story structure of Citizen Kane where we watch as Kane’s life is pieced together after seeing his death in the opening scene. The woman in Vagabond has nothing while Kane had everything. Scenes of Mona’s life are interspersed with interviews from people who interacted with her.
The view is from an omniscient narrator rather than from the perspective of those who are interviewed. It is a narrative film with aspects of documentary interviews, camera moves that are stunning and an opening shot that feels like a painting that has been pulled off the wall in the Louvre. There is one camera move that seems to be a dolly shot of the front of a house through a row of trees before the camera turns to reveal Mona riding in a car with a woman from the camera position of just in front of the hood of the car.
It’s a movie that feels based in reality, supposedly based on a real incident that Varda was aware of. It is so touched in reality that it is quite a jolt in the final minutes when Mona stumbles into a strange village festival of men dressed as burlap sack beets. These surreal “Beet-Men” pummel those who are unaware of what they are walking into at the town square seemingly in order to appease the angry beet god of France. It is quite a strange sequence toward the end of a tragic piece of realism.
Vagabond has documentary aspects to a narrative film and Faces Places has fictional aspects as a documentary. It’s easy to say that documentaries shouldn’t have re-enactments or fictional elements to them, but the perspective of the filmmaker inherently skews even the most pure documentaries to have aspects of fiction or bias.
You could say that the only documentaries to avoid this would be slow cinema. This would be a four hour movie of just a train moving through a countryside or an empty parking lot slowly being filled and emptied. Even this mind-numbing non-sense has a bias, and that bias is of over-simplification and the filmmaker has made the biased choice of the direction to point the camera and in which setting they choose to turn it on.
It could be more illustrative of their relationship to show Agnes and JR not meeting in a bakery or at a bus stop than reality. It’s possible that they never were to meet with Godard or they reenacted a real instance to bring the movie to the important conclusion of JR showing his eyes to Agnes. The camera lies to us by showing his eyes through the blurriness that Agnes sees the world as her vision fails, but this moment is more about the two of them and their journey than our viewing experience of getting that reveal.
It is the photo and mural projects that intercut the story of their friendship. It’s a relationship of an older artist and a younger man who has been close with the old people that have always been in his life since he was a little boy.
It has been a lot of fun this year to realize that there are more directors that feel as though they are speaking directly to me that I had not known of or paid any attention to in the past. Varda has a film history that goes back to the 1950’s and I’ve only seen less than a handful of what she has created.
There are still so many French movies to touch on from newer French movies like Amelie and A Very Long Engagement to Jules and Jim, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Day for Night as well as more Agnes Varda movies. It really couldn't hurt, this month felt like a treat to rewatch Faces Places, one of my favorites of last year, and to discover Cleo From 5 to 7 as one of my new favorites.