It’s not all doom and gloom at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Veteran auteur Agnès Varda teams with photographic graffiti artist JR for the truly wonderful Visages, villages. The unlikely duo travels the French countryside in a photo booth van, creating artwork in JR’s signature style, inspired by the people they meet along the way.
This primarily consists of large-scale black and white photographs pasted onto features of the built environment. It’s striking work; JR’s got the mystery of Banksy, but with a rock star cool and the added benefit of being able to watch his genius at work. And yet, for a young artist so on the pulse, he strikes up a glorious friendship with a filmmaker over half a century his senior.
Varda and JR meet some charming personalities on their travels, but none of them can compare to the film’s central duo. JR is clearly a gifted and thoughtful creator, but he meets his match in Varda, whose firecracker mind is as sharp as ever. She displays none of the frailties so stereotyped for people her age (beyond an aversion to stairs — and who can blame her). Likewise, JR falls prey to none of the prejudice or impatience that youngsters are often portrayed as expressing towards their elders.
In this regard, Visages, villages is both nostalgic (in its passion for longstanding professions — mining, dairy farming, the postal service and beyond) and radically forward-thinking (in its collaboration between young and old, man and woman). The film gleefully, but in no way smugly, presents a glorious utopia of art, community and reflection. In a way, it’s a loving celebration of France, as recent hardships are not allowed to define this nation and its vibrant people.
Vitally, the cinematography is able to capture the essence of these art pieces. Newly adorned walls and buildings are framed to reflect their massive scale, or through groups of people photographing the art. The obsession with photography and the capturing of images feels vital and life-giving, which makes watching a film about this project even better than being there live.
A particular character through line (because, with such captivating guides, the film certainly has them) concerns Varda’s failing eyesight. Thrilling allusions are made to Un Chien Andalou when she undergoes invasive eye surgery. The famous eye slicing shot, which they flash evocatively onto the screen, gives Varda comfort because at least she’s not going through that. And, while the film spends time looking back, she also expresses her need to keep creating new images, in lieu of her fading memories. This lust, nay necessity, for cinema and image-making lends great cinematic energy to the film.
But Varda and JR know sound is image’s true lover, and they charge guitarist -M- with accompanying their lovely visuals. His classical guitar score is never overused, and it scatters along free to explore, as the film does, but always with a clear, and lively, purpose. Between the enlightened creators, the immensely intimate artwork and the fabulous people they meet, there is never a dull moment in this beautiful piece of cinema.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.