October: Faces Places

“Varda and Cliché”

Daniel Morgan (University of Chicago)

Agnès Varda’s late films often seem irreducibly personal, and not just because of her own presence in them. As we watch, we come to know her, or rather the persona she has created. We grow to love the impish humor she displays, her fondness for found objects of beauty, and her sense of the importance of defending her right to be taken seriously as an elderly female artist. This persona first became visible in her stunning Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 2000), and it is no less present in her most recent film, Visages villages (Faces Places, 2017).

Amidst this, it can be hard to see how ambitious her films are, and the ways in which she means them to be explorations on “big” topics. This takes shape in different ways. Faces Places, for example, concludes with Varda’s trip to Switzerland to meet with Godard for the first time in years, but it’s not hard to see the film as a sustained dialogue with Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-98). Both works interweave the history of cinema with the history of the twentieth century, giving the French new wave a heightened importance. Yet there are also crucial differences in tone in their treatment of that history, especially Varda’s move away from canonical events like the Second World War and towards the lived history of ordinary people: miners, dockworkers, goat farmers, etc. (That these people are all white is a strange feature of the film, strange both because of contemporary French politics and because of Varda’s own work such as Black Panthers (1968).)

Varda’s main way of accessing broader topics lies in her use of cliché. This is a tricky subject, since cliché is often taken to be a pejorative term. “We have to move beyond clichés,” says one of the people whose portrait she takes. But Varda in fact relies on cliché as a building block of her aesthetic, and often does so to great effect. We can see this in the opening of Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnes, 2008), where her desire to see herself is initially literalized as a mirror on a beach—but then this metaphor is multiplied, as mirrors of different shapes and sizes come to fill the beach. It’s a breathtaking moment in which the viewer’s expectations are unmoored. We can also see it in one of the celebrated moments from The Gleaners and I, inserted directly into Faces Places: Varda’s discovery, while hunting through misshapen potatoes, of one that is in the shape of a heart. What could be more cliché? What could be more banal as an aesthetic structure? Varda’s brilliance is her ability to use the rhetorical familiarity of the clichéd image while exploding its structure; in insisting so emphatically on the sincerity of her response to the potato, her delight in its shape, she forces the audience to explode the cliché from within, to see the original force that animated the cliché in the first place.

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Much of Faces Places is concerned with a similar kind of cliché, which involves the structure of pathetic fallacy. This isn’t just about seeing human emotions reflected in the natural world. Varda—along with her collaborator, the artist JR—works to impose the pathetic fallacy on the industrial world, to make that dehumanized landscape resonate with emotional sources. They blow up the faces of people they meet into large scale images, then paste them onto the surfaces of buildings (and other structures). It’s art made of cliché—she uses images that have a widespread appeal—but one that goes beyond that term, providing genuinely moving instances of human portraiture in contexts where those very people are likely to be forgotten or overlooked in history’s onward rush. Yet, despite the force of this project, I find that it succeeds less in Faces Places than in Varda’s other late films. This is especially so in Varda’s apparent ambition to have the artistic practice serve as a form of social mediation, one that can provide recompense for historical division; for example, in the factory, the images seem to literally paper over class divisions between labor and management, as if the mere fact of their projection of an image could create a better form of belonging. Still, when the strategy works it is breathtaking, and the sequence of fish that moves into a meditation on the fragility of the eye is as good as anything that Varda has done in this period.

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The cliché is an aesthetic zone that’s hard to navigate. It’s not the ordinary, the site of everyday activities that is a hallmark of a certain kind of realism. It’s not the obvious, the emphasis on what’s before our eyes—but often overlooked—that can, in the hands of someone like Orwell, become a mode of political critique. Nor is it kitsch, with the politics of high and low that marks that mode. The cliché resides in the realm of things whose power has become lost in their repetition, whose structure of appeal is so familiar as to be embarrassing in its use. In Faces Places, as in her other films of this late period, Varda shows herself capable of transforming cliché by returning to her images their forgotten power, giving us moments of beauty and emotional force in sites and forms that we had long become accustomed to passing over. Because they are wholly familiar iconography, whether of resistance or nostalgia, we habitually overlook the faces she finds, thereby denying them the ability to speak to us. Varda’s engagements, and the images she creates with JR in the sites she finds, allows these faces to resonate again for our historical moment.

“Unreconciled Social Spaces”

Jennifer Stob (Texas State University)

“I was curious,” the man begins. “The purpose of putting toes on trains…is there a purpose?” Agnès Varda, one of the most important filmmakers of the last century, sighs a bit in good-natured exasperation before responding. It is dawn in a French railyard, and she is speaking with one of the supervisors of tank cars that have been wheatpasted with enlarged photographs of her eyes and feet, ready to travel down the tracks. These images are the handiwork of JR, a French street artist internationally renowned for his black and white photographic interventions in public space. Varda’s latest documentary, Faces Places (Visages villages, 2017) is a chronicle of more than a dozen such art feats and the bemused reactions they solicit, like the one featured in this scene.

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Of course, Varda has already stated at the start of her film that her collaborative project with JR is about fulfilling her deep wish to photograph the faces that she meets so that they don’t immediately vanish through the holes in her octogenarian memory. The fact that, so close to the film’s end, she reintroduces the question of artistic motivation reinforces the fact that her documentary is a quest for something that can’t fully be explained. In this sense, Faces Places is a prime specimen of the intimate, inconclusive, and conditional mode of non-fiction filmmaking known as essay film.

Back in the railyard, Varda attempts to answer the tank car supervisor. “The purpose,” she replies, “is the power of imagination. We’ve given ourselves the right, JR and I, to imagine things, and to ask people if we can express our imaginations on their turf.” She hastens to add an afterthought: “However, our idea has always been to be with people who work…So there’s the desire to share with you, and at the same time to try out our own quirky ideas.”

On my first viewing of Faces Places, I took Varda’s explanations on faith. I was wrong to do so, but at least I wasn’t alone; most of the film’s reviewers have done the same. Richard Brody proclaims that the film’s subject is “the heroism of daily life, the recognition of the daily labor and struggles of factory workers, farmers, waitresses, and for that matter, women.” Other reviewers, who likewise believe that the film is about imagination unfolding in social space, disagree; they left the theater irritated by its “willful naïveté.” In her review for Cinema Scope, Erika Balsom makes short work of the way the film crosses France’s de-industrialized, mass-agriculturalized, union-busting, outsourcing, and xenophobic contemporary landscape with little more than an absentmindedly-raised fist in acknowledgement of difficult political realities.

If we stop listening to what Varda and JR say they are doing, and look instead at the moving images they create, it becomes clear that Faces Places is not about combining the power of imagination and communal experience but about tracing the divide between them. JR’s photo booth truck aspires to be neither a Mitchell and Kenyon “see yourself as others see you” film event, nor a twenty-first century Medvedkinian cinétrain. We find in Faces Places the conviction that undergirds all of Varda’s best filmmaking from her first film, La Pointe Courte (1954), onwards: that individual desires and identities can never be reconciled with collective identity (for more on this, see Pierre Uytterhoeven’s 1962 interview, “Agnés Varda from 5 to 7,” reprinted in Agnès Varda: Interviews).

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Faces Places is a love story between Varda and JR, between youth and old age, and most importantly, between visual mastery of the world and regret—regret for everything that we’ve lost sight of, but still remember. Like all of the filmmakers who ushered in global New Waves, Varda believes that the best film romances are those doomed from the outset. This is why she introduces an improbable rendezvous with her long-lost friend, Jean-Luc Godard, a turn of events so absurd that not even JR’s dark glasses can hide his incredulity. As anyone the least bit familiar with Godard would suspect, he proves completely unwilling to play a role in Varda’s last picture show, and JR must step in as his boyish understudy to provide the sweetness in the film’s bittersweet conclusion.

Like Godard’s no-show, the film’s most meaningful moments come from those who resist the duo’s project. Varda has always been gloriously fearless about leaving in and even focusing closer in on the people and things in her films that contradict their narrative progression. Faces Places is no exception. We see a retiring factory worker who worries openly about the unknown ahead of him, a retired non-worker who is content to live outside of society’s picture book, a waitress who is less than thrilled to be on a wall and all over Instagram, and a schedule planner for a transportation company who perches fearfully inside a shipping container, hardly acting the part of a totemic docker’s wife.

Watch the film for the jokes and the goats, but watch it especially for these resistants. They are Varda’s secret weapon against her own fear that we cannot truly love what we cannot iconify.

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