As well as the usual excellent crop of top feature films debuting at the New York Film Festival, there is also an equally impressive presentation of some of the best documentaries being made today. One of them surely is “Visages, Villages” directed by Agnes Varda, the French cinema icon who is now 89 and has recently decided she likes her hair dyed pink.
Here, in her new film, which won the Golden Eye, the best documentary award at Cannes in May, she jauntily sports a white-topped dome, with a red & purple fringe. Appearing as the co-star and narrator of “Visages, Villages” (“Face, Places” in English) the inimitable Varda, who is to be honored with an Honorary Oscar next month for her immense body of work, re-invents the documentary form she has come to embrace. Once again she turns it upside-down, inside-out and backwards as she focuses her roving camera on the French countryside and its villagers, but also relentlessly on herself.
She partners in this endeavor with a young French visual artist, JR, age 39. Director Matthew Demy is Varda’s son, but she seems ready to adopt JR as we watch them develop a touching mother/son relationship as “Faces, Places” unfolds He is portrayed here as much the subject of this charming, innovative doc as much as she is herself. And her beloved France.
This is classique France, all sunshine and beauty, without the slightest reference to terrorism or political conflict.
The French countryside is the sumptuous setting for this folie a deux road trip, as M. Varda convinces JR to accompany her on this journey to investigate just what makes the French so formidable. It’s the workers, she decides. The invisible villagers of the invisible villages that no one else rarely thinks to explore on film, except her.
They travel in a small truck/van that looks like at giant Kodak camera, and it more or less is, as they develop, print, and plaster poster-sized black-and-white photographs of the workers they encounter in the most rural (and scenic) parts of the French country-side. At first resistant, their ordinary working subjects soon prove extraordinary, when Varda & JR blow them up to the size of a building. Everyone has a story, and M. Varda is determined to make them all tell it. It’s fascinating and as enchanting as she is.
One of Varda’s many, many cinematic works that has always fascinated me is “The Beaches of Agnes” where she repeatedly photographed her aging hands. Here we get her eye-ball and then her toes, as JR decides he must photograph her feet and plaster her adorable, 89-year-old pudgy tootsies on a traveling railway car, as well as various industrial buildings.
She thinks JR is like a young Jean-Luc Godard and there is a very poignant/angry scene at the end of “Faces,Places” where she and JR go to Switzerland to see Godard, now a recluse, and he doesn’t show up. Godard’s unseen presence gives this lovely film a bittersweet tang at the end as Varda is quite hurt by his snub. They are both in their 80s, among the last survivors of the French New Wave. How much time do they have left to see each other again?
A selection of Varda’s many, many films are also being shown at the festival, including “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” and “Cleo From 5 to 7.”