If you’ve never heard of Agnès Varda, the star and co-creator of Faces Places, this year’s opening film in our season, you may be wondering why we call her a ‘hero of French cinema’.
Varda turned 89 earlier this year, and recently received an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar at the annual Governors Awards in Los Angeles. At the awards Jessica Chastain spoke of how Varda has paved the way for female filmmakers and that, as Varda has said, 'rebelliousness is part of being a woman'. Then, Varda joined Angelina Jolie on stage for an impromptu ‘dance of cinema’, clips of which immediately went viral.
But who is she? Agnès Varda has been making films since 1954 after an early career as a photojournalist, and so Faces Places, with its interest in documenting people and places as she find them, is in some ways a return to her roots. Varda’s films, which span low-key dramas such as Cleo from 5 to 7 to playful documentaries The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnès, combine everyday scenes and ‘ordinary’ people with playful, creative ideas. Her films are often edited to ‘jump’ between these two ways of seeing, and this gives them the special flavour of ‘an Agnès Varda film’. Her documentaries are always fanciful, and her fictional films always include real-life, and she bridges the gap between fiction and documentary in a unique and distinctive way.
Apart from Agnès herself, the other main character and creative force in Faces Places is JR, a famous French photographer and street artist who is about 55 years younger than Agnès’. Throughout the film Agnès and JR tease each other affectionately, and in particular Agnès chides JR’s over his refusal to ever remove his sunglasses. This is a signal of Agnès’ past, as it reminds her of her old friend Jean-Luc Godard, with whom she worked in the 1960s in an explosion of creativity in French cinema known as the French New Wave. In this director-led, and highly influential wave, Agnès was the sole woman, and lesser-known overall.
Now, more than 60 years since Varda and Godard were re-inventing cinema by deliberately testing as many of the existing rules as they could, she and he are the only ones from that movement who are still making films. In time, Godard’s films, though always made with a kind of brilliance, have become more concerned with abstract and barely-graspable ideas. His films are exhilarating, always exploding with ideas, yet they can often be chilly, while Varda’s, while they are never afraid to acknowledge darkness, are full of warm concern for people. And as the only female director in the New Wave generation, Varda has maintained a consistently feminist approach. Her films create subtle shifts of perspective to challenge how cinema, and society more broadly often views women. Looking back over a long career, we can now see that Agnès Varda has been a hugely influential pioneer for filmmakers who want to express new ideas, and for women in particular.
In the final scenes of Faces Places, Varda and JR travel to Switzerland to see her old pal Jean-Luc Godard, and there we see aspects of each of their characters, how they diverge. It’s a poignant and beautiful sequence in a film that is full of the possibilities of the everyday, and of taking spontaneous images of people. Instead of dwelling in the past, Faces Places asks us to let go of it and to embrace the here and now.
If you like Faces Places and are would like to see more films by Agnès Varda, here are five of my favourites:
- Cleo from 5 to 7 (1965) – This early fictional features follows two hours in the life of a young woman who has recently received some life-changing news.
- Mural Murals (1981) – Varda loves Los Angeles, and this documentary, 36 years prior to Faces Places, celebrates the city by documenting its public murals.
- Vagabond (1985) – A brilliant fictional dissection of the final few weeks in a young female vagabond’s life, from the various perspectives those she encountered. Sandrine Bonnaire is hard to forget as the title character. Screened at Perth Festival in 1987
- The Gleaners and I (2000) – A typically lively essay film on reclaiming ‘ugly’ things as beautiful, this focuses on ‘gleaners’, people who make good from things left behind.
- The Beaches of Agnès (2008) – This skips though Agnès’ adult life and career as an artist. We reconnect with the people and places who have been important to her. One of the most playful and open documentaries you could ever see.
My first response to seeing Faces Places can be found here.
By Tom Vincent - Perth Festival Films Program Manager