Cannes 2017 review: Visages, villages (Agnès Varda and JR)

In 2011, French “photograffeur” JR set out to turn the world “Inside Out,” visiting over 120 countries and mounting black and white photographs of people on the surfaces of public spaces in the style of street graffiti. Meanwhile, Agnès Varda, instrumental auteur of the Rive gauche contingent in the Nouvelle vague, begins to fear that the images of people’s faces are about to fall through the holes in her memory. The two might seem like an unlikely pairing of icons from discrete eras and mediums, but Visages, villages, a documentary of JR and Agnès Varda’s collaboration in the extension of his Inside Out Project, proves their artistic and ideological values and becomes a moving tribute to the spirit of ordinary people.

As they travel the French countryside, Varda and JR visit small villages where they ask the locals if they can take photos of their faces, and with their consent and creative control, superimpose and paste them onto the sides of walls, trains, barns, and even rubble. Varda and JR are adorably evasive in their refusal to disclose how this collaboration began, but they will soon make up for this reticence with an ardent candour.

What begins as character studies focused on the varied people they meet and want to know more about evolves into an opportunity for this duo to open up about themselves. Varda and JR get along famously, making choice remarks at the expense of themselves and each other (Varda pokes fun at his insistence on wearing a hat and shades, and he makes jokes about her wrinkles and feet), and they appear to have a lot in common as artists, but JR takes a step back, trusting this master’s experience and clarity of vision, giving her the opportunity to reflect on her artistic contributions and personal friendships. There is a perfect balance that uses just the right amount of these personal anecdotes to keep it feeling genuine and prevent self-gratification, and the stories of their muses are used as a juncture through which Varda recalls memories that tie their present to her past (a sequence in which they interview and photograph goat farmers invites reflections of notable photography from her youth), effectively showing a candid, accessibly playful, yet pragmatic side of this cinematic legend’s down-to-earth work ethic.

Visages, villages begins as a light-hearted glance into their generous passion project, but the depth and power of what it portends glides into meaningful, gentle dominance. What could have very easily been a vanity piece in the hands of another director becomes a beautifully moving celebration of the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people, particularly as a love letter to the beauty of aging. As much as the film delivers a full sense of who Agnès Varda and JR are as people, what their rapport is like, they really show true humility in making a film where every ordinary person is a star, and their loving portraits give a voice and legacy to the faces we overlook.