Documenting Dignity

Agnes Varda has died. Her last film is a reminder that those on the margins of society are often most worthy of the camera’s gaze.

Agnes Varda and JR, directors of Faces Places. (Photo by Amanda Edwards / WireImage.)

The late filmmaker Agnes Varda’s last film Faces Places (Visages Villages, 2017), made in collaboration with the street artist JR, feels both like the summation of a lifetime’s thinking about cinema, work, and everyday life, and a tentative suggestion of what might happen next. Varda’s work, while undeniably avant-garde, French, and therefore naturally ‘difficult’ and ‘pretentious’, has always struck a balance between accessibility, intellectual rigour, and experiment. Faces Places stands as an object lesson in the richness and complexity that almost sixty years of film-making can produce.

The film follows Varda and JR on a tour around France in the latter’s enormous van-cum-photobooth, photographing and immortalising members of different communities by reproducing their images at huge scale in public places. In this set-up and the interaction between JR, Varda, and their varied subjects allows for a kind of valedictory reprise of Varda’s storied career. The film blends documentary and artifice, focusing on the lives of working people, and insists both that ‘culture is ordinary’ and that ordinary lives can be the stuff of radical new forms of high art. Through JR’s big photographs, pasted onto buildings, Varda memorialises her own past, those she loved, worked with, and has outlived, and pays homage to the lives and struggles of workers, insisting on their dignity, centrality, and importance.

The engagement — sometimes grudging, mostly enthusiastic — of Varda and JR’s subjects reveals the openness to art and thought that liberal culture assumes is alien to those who labour in fields and factories. In one of the film’s most moving sequences, an elderly widow in a former mining town, known locally as la resistant due to her refusal to sell out to developers, sees her own image blown up and pasted on the wall of the house that she won’t move out of. When Varda and JR show the work to this stoic, plain-speaking woman, she bursts into tears.

These sort of stubborn resistances to the ways traditions are forcibly remade are key to Varda’s explorations. At one point she separates off from JR and pursues her own interests more closely. She meets a goat-farmer who refuses to clip the horns of her goats purely out of a concern for value-maximisation and an elderly outsider artist, living in a self-made house of artwork; his ascetism and creativity are key to a satisfied, if impoverished, life. Sometimes these moments are at odds with the whimsy of JR’s own approach (photographing Varda’s toes and pasting them on the side of a freight train, for example). Many of the differences between the pair, generational and ideological, are revealed in two sequences set in industrial sites, the self-contained ‘villages’ referred to in the film’s French title.

In the first, workers and managers in a chemical factory are photographed as a group and pasted up reaching out toward each other in a starburst of de-stratification. One of them comments wistfully that for a moment it is nice to have all of the levels of the company together, interchangeable; it’s a carnivalesque, purely notional levelling of a hierarchy that persists once the working day begins. Here art is a sop, a pleasant if melancholy fantasy of a different form of workplace organisation. The second is in the port of Le Havre, in which Varda takes more control of the situation. She insists that three wives of the male dockers they initially meet should be their subject, bringing them out of the shadows and allowing them to reflect on their own relationship to work and representation (all three work at the port). In an interview sequence, Varda gently admonishes them for saying that they stand ‘behind’ their husbands rather than ‘alongside’ them in labour disputes.

The film’s creative and generative tensions centre on the differences between Varda and her male interlocutors, most of all JR, who, she points out, resembles her friend and one-time collaborator, Jean-Luc Godard; the film ends bitterly, in a thwarted reunion with this fellow survivor of the French New Wave. A part of the triumph of Faces Places is to slyly situate Varda in a still open space outside both the feel-good street art of the TED-award winning JR, and the predictable trajectory that has led Godard from Maoist enfant terrible to ageing curmudgeon. Varda has never shown a desire to engage in that most knee-jerk of responses for would-be radicals, to epater le bourgeois. This film, and the art made in it, is not addressed to them, and neither hopes to incite their pity, nor to histrionically attack or expose them. Instead, she quietly insists that those struggling in the cracks and margins of the system are the most worthy of the camera’s gaze; and this is perhaps the most radical subversion of all.