Open to Serendipity: Legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda teams with street artist JR for charming 'Faces Places'

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Partway through the charming documentary Faces Places, octogenarian filmmaker Agnès Varda, often referred to as “the godmother of the French New Wave,” and her co-director, the thirtyish French street artist JR, decide to paste an enlarged photograph onto a German bunker that sits like a modern-art sculpture on the beach of Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer in Normandy. Varda had taken this picture of the young photographer Guy Bourdin just above the beach over 60 years earlier. Without knowing what the place meant to her, JR had suggested they visit. Varda simply “couldn’t believe” that of all the locations in France, it was this “five kilometers” or so stretch of seashore, so dear to her because of its associations with her late friend Guy, that JR should have recommended. But then, “serendipity” could have been a third collaborator on their film.

Hauling their equipment onto the beach, including ladders, cameras and scaffolding, and then pasting the photograph of Guy onto the bunker before the tide came in was quite a production, and even a little dangerous. “I don’t know how much the audience can feel the adventure,” Varda fretted earlier this week while she and JR were in town to promote Faces Places, which Cohen Media Group opens in New York today. “We didn’t know about the audience reaction. Because we don’t make films for us. We make them to be shown.”

Born in Belgium in 1928, Varda did not begin her career making films. She worked as a photographer before shooting her first movie in her mid-20s. Varda has said that at the time she had seen no more than ten films in her life; she simply “imagined” how hers would look. Her sophomore feature, Cleo from 5 to 7, demonstrated the formidable power of this imagination and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. A Berlin Silver Bear (for 1965’s Happiness), a Venice Golden Lion (for 1985’s Vagabond) a European Film Award (for 2000’s The Gleaners and I) and a French César (for 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès), among other awards, followed suit. In 2015, she received an honorary Palme d’Or, and she will be honored with a special Oscar (aka the Governors Award) in November.

It was at Cannes this year that Varda’s fears concerning audience reactions to Faces Places first proved unfounded. The documentary follows her and JR as they travel through a number of French villages in the van JR uses for his ongoing participatory art project, “Inside Out,” for which he won a TED award in 2011. The back of the van doubles as a photo booth that dispenses from the side of the vehicle poster-sized photographs. They chat with the locals and then do what JR does best: paste giant-sized pictures of people (or animals) onto the exteriors of buildings (or shipping containers, or trains, or World War II-era bunkers, or whatever else moves them). It is indeed a great “adventure” propelled by the warmth of their friendship.

Anyone who has seen the documentary will not be surprised by Varda’s description of her experience at Cannes this spring. A roomful of “2,012 people” gave the film “such an enthusiastic reception, we felt almost surprised. We said: Is it a mistake or something? It’s too much. Which made us feel good,” she adds. The film is currently 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

It was Varda’s daughter, the costume designer Rosalie Varda-Demy, who arranged for their introduction. (Rosalie’s stepfather was the late The Umbrellas of Cherbourg director, Jacques Demy. Varda also had a son with Demy, the actor and filmmaker Mathieu Demy.) Rosalie thought the two might hit it off, given that Varda, who filmed a 1981 documentary on murals in Los Angeles, Mur Murs, is interested in street art. However, “we didn’t think we would get along so well and be best buddies,” says JR, in the affectionately teasing tone he adopts with his collaborator. It was clear from the first they would do something together, although they didn’t know it would be a documentary.

“If we’d thought from the beginning that this was going to be a film, we wouldn’t have taken it that easy,” JR admits. They would have felt pressured to follow a schedule. But circumstances favored a laid-back approach. Varda, who was in her mid-80s when filming began, could only shoot two to four days each month. There were also periods during which they had to wait for executive producer Rosalie to secure more financing. So they traveled and filmed when they could, and for two years, “we were just playing.”

Varda believes their “peaceful” doc was so enthusiastically received because it is the right film for the times. While we live “in a world of so much chaos and bad news and hate and violence,” Faces Places is a “proposition out of politics, out of terror, out of violence. It’s a proposition of ‘Let’s be together with people.’”

And yet politics is often present in the film at its margins, though Varda would call it “sociologie or anthropologie.” One of the first towns that Varda and JR visit, for example, is home to a former mining community on the downturn. The woman who lives in the last house along a kind of miner’s row is the daughter of a deceased miner who is refusing to move. Varda and this woman still send each other chocolates, JR says.

At a factory, Varda came to consider differently a political issue she has been watching for some time. One of the days they filmed happened to be the very last day for an employee who had been at the factory for 30 years. “I’ve been following the politics, demonstrations, march[es] in the streets” of those who want better retirement conditions, says 89-year-old Varda. But, “I never was on the side of somebody who has to retire.” This man didn’t know what his tomorrow would look like. The way he “spoke about falling from a…”

“Cliff,” offers JR.

“…cliff. Suddenly I said, ‘Well, I learned it’s not that easy to retire.’”

And then there are the dockworkers who were on strike when the filmmakers visited. Yet again, serendipity appeared at their side. (Varda has joked in more than one interview that she enlists “chance” as her assistant on her documentaries. He deserves a raise.) JR admits they were hesitant to ask the workers to participate in their project. But, “they said, ‘No, actually, art has nothing to do with our strike.’” Not only were the workers game to participate, there is little chance they could have participated had they not been on strike.

“We were lucky, ’cause they were all free to help us because they didn’t have to work,” explains JR. Varda and JR chose to paste their enlarged photographs onto immense shipping containers that the workers voluntarily stacked like LEGO blocks.

The men’s enthusiasm also allowed the filmmakers to gratify their feminist impulses. Those familiar with Varda will know to associate her with feminism: Not only is she the only woman commonly named among the French New Wave directors of the late ’50s and ’60s (directors who also include her late husband Demy, as well as François Truffaut, Alain Resnais and the mysterious Jean-Luc Godard), she has agitated for abortion rights and written several “difficult” female characters, most notably Mona of Vagabond. But viewers unfamiliar with JR might be interested (albeit unsurprised, given his rapport with Varda and the grandmother who makes a cameo in the movie) to know his first film was a documentary titled Women Are Heroes.

So both were excited to invite three of the workers’ wives to the dock. It was the first time these women had ever visited the place where their husbands work. And it was photographs of them, not of their men, that Varda and JR chose to enlarge and paste onto the towering shipping containers. These women survey the dock like benevolent giantesses. Their husbands “were surprised to be themselves touched” by the spectacle, Varda recalls. “So we were impressed that maybe it changed…their perception of life.” She speculates that seeing their women on a heroic scale made the dockworkers reconsider certain gender stereotypes. “Because we work with images. And images are not innocent.” Here, it was JR and Varda, not advertisers concerned with a bottom line, who could control what the images of women meant.

What they could not control was the reaction of everyone to whom they reached out. At the end of the film, they drop in to see Godard. Things, however, do not go according to plan. To this day, Varda has not spoken with the filmmaker. Although she sent him a DVD of Faces Places, she has received no reply.

“I really admire his work,” she says. “And I won’t change my mind about, as a filmmaker, how important he has been. As a friend, he was an important friend, but this was in the sixties, and people have the right to change, to have other friends, or to forget.”

Equally important to the film’s conclusion is JR’s trademark sunglasses. Although his refusal to remove his shades irks Varda throughout the film, they serve a pragmatic purpose in real life. Many of the public street-art projects that have taken him from Russian embassies throughout Europe to the border wall separating the United States and Mexico are illegal. In order to preserve his anonymity, JR will neither be photographed nor filmed without his sunglasses. It was, in fact, in consideration of this point that Varda first asked me upon sitting down and seeing a recording device on the table: “Are you filming?”

But while discussing the finale to Faces Places, Varda grew distracted. Also on the table was a stack of promotional postcards. The image from the film’s poster appeared on the front of each postcard, while on the back there was a synopsis and a few shortened reviews. One review irritated Varda so much that she interrupted herself mid-sentence to demand, “Who gives stars? Who is it?”

The five stars and accompanying phrase—“Exquisite”—were from The Guardian, I told her.

“But they only gave it to me,” teased JR. “There’s a little asterisk that says, ‘Stars only to JR.’”

Varda ignored him. “Why is it ‘exquisite’? This is not ‘exquisite.’ That’s a ridiculous name.”

JR: “She’s complaining about everything.”

AV: “Yes, this is not a good quote.”

JR: “That’s a very French thing to do.”

AV: “This is not an exquisite film.”

How would you describe it? I asked.

“Well, I would say, warm, helping you get new friends,” she replied. “I don’t know, something about people.”

“We had luck all along the way, actually,” JR said. Even “what you would call maybe ‘not luck’ at the end of the film was incredible luck.” He tapped Varda’s hands with the edges of several postcards. She shooed him off. He grinned. “I think the biggest luck is that we got to meet, finally.”