Review : Faces, Places

DIR/WRI: Agnès Varda, JR • PRO: Rosalie Varda • ED: Maxime Pozzi-Garcia, Agnès Varda • MUS: Matthieu Chedid • CAST: Agnès Varda, JR

This September the IFI hosted an Agnès Varda retrospective which provided audiences with the chance to dive back into the works of this pioneering new wave female director. This retrospective was no doubt sparked by the filmmaker’s latest addition to the excellent collection of films she already has under her belt. Faces, Places is a docu-travelogue which follows the dynamic and nomadic duo of 88 year old Agnès and JR, a 33 year old photographer. The duo embark on a meandering escapade through the lesser known regions of France in search of the faces and places that are being erased from the landscape of modern day life in France.

The film touches on many different ideas; it is a film about discovery, curiosity, stories, communication and the power of art. The overall aim of the duo’s shared project is to seek out the underrepresented people that they come across in their travels and give them the chance to be noticed and heard. One of the strongest aspects of this film is its ability to demonstrate the number of different ways that art can take effect. Essentially from village to village, JR plasters giant murals of these everyday people, stirring up a range of reactions and responses. These giant murals act to unify the people who inhabit these places, to pay homage to their lives and achievements in a world that may no longer support their way of life. While art can be used to remember and represent, it can also be employed innovatively to break through barriers and express the unspoken. Above all, the medium of art in this film gives people a voice.

Tradition and memory are significant themes which re-occur throughout the film, illustrated most clearly when Agnès and JR visit an old mining village in North France. Members of the community gather to tell their stories and document this way of life that is no more, with the exception of one solitary inhabitant who will not let go. On a street of former miner workers homes, one lady will not leave her residence, cherishing her past and doggedly holding onto her memories. Mining would have been an arduous way to make a living yet this community laments the past. Village members gather together in a shared reverence at the murals of former miners as they are plastered across this block of homes. Most touching perhaps is the mural of the last remaining inhabitant, she is at a loss for words and close to tears when her mural is unveiled. This is art that gives hope and spreads joy, celebrating and recognising a life lived.

While on the one hand art can be used to record, it can also be used to start a conversation and draw attention to the people that need to be noticed. JR and Agnès move on from miners to dockers and, significantly, Agnès chooses to shine a light on the dockers’ wives instead of the work men. We meet three dockers’ wives and they are given the opportunity to tell their stories. Shipping docks are piled high up into the air- with these three women’s large scale portraits plastered on- they stand tall and their images are dominant in a male dominated world.

Although the film gives a voice to some of the sadness that is present in sleepy rural towns with diminishing ways of life, the film is ultimately one of discovery and is often joyful. Two of the most heart-warming moments of sheer joy come in the form of JR wheeling Agnès through the Louvre in a wheelchair – an abandon to impulsivity and an appreciation of beauty. Another visual treat which stood out was the idea to photograph each village member of a small town with a baguette covering their mouths- collectively making a mural of one tiny village consuming one very large baguette. This could be seen as a return to basics by getting a community to really break bread together. On one particular location in which the duo has completed a wall mural someone simply asks them why they want to do this. Agnès’ response that it celebrates the power of imagination puts an important emphasis on something that we have mostly forgotten the importance and effect of: the joy of art and creativity.

Overall, this film is one of a kind and a joy to watch. It is a film that shows the wonder that stems from slowing down and noticing the people around you. Agnès and JR are united by their passion for adventure and belief that there is always someone somewhere to be discovered with a story to tell. Visually, this movie is a discovery of the pockets of beauty and life that lie in the lesser known parts of France, brought to life by this unique pair.

Irene Falvey

93 minutes
PG (see IFCO for details)
Faces, Places is released 14th September 2018


'The Beaches of Agnés' at the 22nd Cork French Film festival


WRI/DIR/PRO: Agnes Varda DOP: Agnes Varda, Julia Fabry, Héléne Louvart, Arlene Nelson, Alain Sakot ED: Baptiste Filloux, Jean-Baptiste Morin • Featuring: Agnes Varda, André Lubrano.

The Gate Cinema,  6:30pm, Monday, 7th March 2011

The second Agnés Varda film to grace the Festival in their excellent retrospective of her work, the first being the opening film Cleo from 5 to 7, The Beaches of Agnés is a very personal insight into the philosophies of Ms. Agnés Varda. She believes that there are landscapes inside that define people and naturally she chose a beach as hers. It makes sense, beaches are ever changing, vast and beautiful their malleability befitting a director of such variety and depth.

To label this a simple documentary would greatly undersell the piece as it combines a number of interesting stylistic devices to create a unique whole. There’s the woman herself narrating her story, from her initial work in photography through to her maturation as a filmmaker to being recognised as a grand old dame of experimental cinema. That through-line represents the arc of the film in its most traditional sense but our recollections never go in that straight a line. They meander, they grope in the dark of memory and we are left with intriguing tangents. The film is rife with lovely absurdist imagery, a cartoon cat engages her in conversation, her intimacy with visionary director Jacques Demy is shown in two anonymous nude figures nuzzling in her courtyard. Freedom of narrative and chronology is vital here. The conceit of the beach is maintained as she creates a makeshift sand pit in the middle of a busy street. It’s the style she’s always brought to her work reflected back on herself and the journey is a wonderful one, tender, hilarious and heartbreaking all in one.

Her much storied career is presented here in a very natural way, the chronology brought along by clips and encounters with her family as we see generations of her family share the screen. There’s an honesty at work, that can only come when filtered through a very content artist, a woman who knows her craft well and can use it to navigate such a complex subject. Her myriad styles and experiments are presented, and her modesty is always apparent through her humorous, self deprecating pronouncements. Those with a thirst for New Wave lore will love the anecdotes, aspiring filmmakers can marvel at her innovations and joie de vivre. Some may be surprised for her love of LA in her confession that she was readily seduced by the Hollywood Hills but for everyone there is a sense of real self analysis and joy for the very act of creating art.

In one interesting aside she questions how much do we understand the concept of family through events and shared history? We may know these people but can we ever hope to truly understand such a bond? The feeling one gets from this is that Ms. Varda would always have been an inquisitive and philosophical soul even if she hadn’t discovered her love for the medium of film. But we should be thankful that she did for the many pleasures it has afforded us.

Emmet O’Brien

Emmet O’Brien’s review of Cleo from 5 to 7


'Cleo from 5 to 7' Anges Varda's 1962 classic opens the 22nd Cork French Film Festival


WRI/DIR: Agnes Varda • PRO: Carlo Ponti, Georges de Beauregard DOP: Paul Bonis, Alain Levent, Jean Rabier ED: Pascale Laverriere, Janine Verneau • Cast: Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Michel Legrand, Dorothee Blanc

The Gate Cinema,  7pm, Sunday, 6th March 2011

The 22nd Cork French Film Festival kicked off in glorious monochromatic style with Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnes Varda’s masterful dissection of time and geography set against a positively vibrant Paris in the height of its New Wave cool.

Cleo, a beautiful but very vain pop singer, exists in a bourgeoisie bubble populated by assistants, casual friends, and eccentric colleagues and the film delights in sharing these eccentrics with the audience. Despite the ‘real time’ aspect at play throughout, the tone is pitched to an absurd degree, the highly stylized tone and characters broad stroked but perfectly drawn. Through the filter of the gradually changing Cleo we see her world of artifice fall away as her life comes into clearer focus through the potential tragedy that hangs over her.

The film is literally episodic with title cards coming up to indicate the time of scenes and the character in which the segment will focus on. Naturally Cleo drives the narrative but it is noteworthy that we get glimpses into other people’s thoughts and actions, those that orbit this by times petulant and at other times wise woman. Many issues are dealt with in the various conversations; femininist concerns, existentialism, the nature of fate, the inevitably of death, but the story is never weighed down its ticking clock ensuring a brisk pace and a light touch as the glamour of Cleo’s life eventually gives way to a deeper truth and more meaningful relationships.

The latter is encapsulated by the brief but intense bond she finds with a soldier primed to head off to war the very same evening. Both characters are under a guillotine of sorts and in this realisation the movie’s most naturalistic moments shine through. A very subtle and winning performance from Antoine Bourseiller and genuine chemistry with the film’s luminous star Corinne Marchand makes the encounter between them the heart of the piece. It’s easy to fall in love with the aesthetics of Cleo From 5 to 7; sumptuous, seductive and hyper stylized, it remains a feast for the eyes but it’s the low key writing, perfectly crafted world and such scenes as the solider meeting which makes it linger and rewards repeat viewings.

Take out all the New Wave trappings, even the cameos by Godard and Anna Karina in a charming silent film sequence, and you’re still left with the simplest of stories, expertly told. It may exist in a place just left of reality, its touchstones being music and the attitudes of its time, but the film hasn’t dated. Its themes transcend its location and tropes and continue to resonate in important ways. A truly beautiful film from a visionary director, a lot can happen in an hour and a half and as we can see here a legacy can be forged.

Emmet O’Brien

Emmet O’Brien reviews The Beaches of Agnés