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Agnes Varda and JR

New Wave film legend Agnès Varda and muralist JR on their new documentary

How the unlikely duo made their freewheeling, Oscar-nominated film, Faces Places

It was arguably Agnès Varda, not Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut, who propelled the French New Wave into motion. In 1955, Varda, then just a still photographer, picked up a camera and shot her 86-minute debut, La Pointe Courte. In the ensuing decades, the director’s natural curiosity grew and grew, breathing life into an unpredictable filmography: the real-time drama of Cléo from 5 to 7; the pro-choice politics of One Sings, the Other Does Not; the jigsaw assembly of Vagabond; and my favourite, 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès, a cinematic recreation of personal memories, including footage of Varda dressed as a talking potato.

At the age of 90, Varda’s output still exudes the same magic and spontaneity of her nouvelle vague origins. Her latest film, Faces Places, marks her first time with a co-director. For the freewheeling, Oscar-nominated documentary, Varda partners up with JR, a muralist who turned 35 this year. Despite the age gap, the pair are kindred spirits, and somewhat of a comedy duo: Varda is a smiley, outward people person, whereas JR is dour, hiding behind a pseudonym and sunglasses.

Together, their mission is to traverse across rural France, meet unsung locals along the way, and paste gigantic photos of their faces onto the sides of buildings. They do so in JR’s van, a vehicle decorated as an oversized camera, and trust their instincts – it’s a road trip driven by pure emotion. Subjects include coalminers, a postman, and other workers whose professions have been diminished by technology. Sometimes the portraits are socially conscious (“faces are beautiful, but it’s good to see a woman standing tall”), and other times they’re based on personal recollections, like Varda honouring her deceased pal, Guy Bourdin, at a spot they once visited many decades ago.

Of course, Faces Places also explores Varda and JR’s friendship, particularly their musings on life and art. Varda, whose eyesight is fading, admits in the film: “Every person I meet feels like my last one.” JR replies: “You keep saying that, but we bounce back like cats!” Later on, Varda decides that, as a gift, she’ll introduce JR to Godard. What happens next is extraordinary, and more dramatic than anything Godard’s done for quite a few decades.

To meet Varda and JR in person, as I did last week in London, was akin to witnessing an unofficial sequel. The pair were in a mischievous mood, JR wore his trademark sunglasses, and I left wishing they could plaster my face onto the wall of Hazlitt’s Hotel. Here’s what happened during our conversation.

Faces Places helped me realise something about selfies: they lack the human connection between the photographer and the subject. Is your film a response to that?

Agnès Varda: We didn’t build it as an answer. But it shows that it’s nice to meet people, to have conversations with them. People say, “Can I do a selfie with you?” I always say yes, so that they can go home and say, “I have a selfie with Agnès Varda.” For me, it doesn’t make sense. But I don’t want to slap them and say, “Go away.”

JR: We questioned that ourselves. But our answer is by creating, not by giving anyone a lesson. We love doing selfies ourselves. We were like, “How can we use portraits to engage and to create more interactions?” We asked people what they’ll do with their photos, and sometimes it’s about sharing and sending them to a loved one.

Agnès Varda: Also, the world is bombed with images. Huge images of actors, huge images of advertising. A beautiful man who sells men’s perfume, a naked woman selling cars. We are bombed with images of people that don’t make sense to us. What about telling people they are as important as actors and politicians? It was us saying, “You’re beautiful. You deserve to have a big image.” It’s telling everybody they’re important. Everybody is beautiful, everybody deserves to be on a wall.

Then again, is this film the ultimate selfie? We learn so much about you two.

Agnès Varda: Not at all.

JR: No. For us, it was always about the people, but it’s interesting because we did give away something about ourselves.

JR, do you perceive your murals as being cinematic? In a way, the magic of cinema is seeing human faces enlarged and projected onto a wall.

JR: Yeah. First, there’s a relationship with architecture. It’s always related to the space, it’s always related to the context, and it’s related to the people, because they decided where it’s going to be pasted. But of course, it’s cinematic, because in a world of colours, you bring black and white back, and it creates these interesting images. With Agnès, we had so much pleasure trying to reframe something that’s already been framed inside a frame, and completely breaking the code. (JR takes out his phone and starts filming Agnès for an Instagram Story)

Agnès Varda: Are you filming me? Come on, stop! (Slaps JR’s wrist) You shouldn’t. They will see my double-chin. You should be slightly higher, it will be less ugly.

Is this like how you co-directed the film?

JR: Exactly! I have a great frame, because it looks like, above your head, there’s a little cone, and there’s a man watching your head. You would love that frame. It’s a little bit higher, so we don’t see your double-chin.

Agnès, in the last few years, you’ve won an honorary Oscar and an honorary Palme d’Or. Why won’t they give you the real award?

Agnès Varda: When they call it “honorary”, it’s because they didn’t give it normally. I didn’t win the real Oscar. You have to be a winner with a film, with an actor. Each year, they give some honorary Oscars. They said I was the first woman director getting it. OK, fine. I felt very touched, because my films never made money. It means my work as a filmmaker means something for them, and not my career, which is zero.

There are sometimes ten years between your films – and JR, you posted about ten Instagram Stories just last night. Is that why you’re an effective team?

JR: What’s interesting is that since I’ve met Agnès, I would do little Stories. It took some time and discussion, but she accepted that it’s like sharing moments, and she created her own Instagram account.

The movie captured a year and a half of us getting to know each other and travelling. But the truth is, the film is still happening in real life, basically, exactly the same way. We travel for other reasons, and sometimes I still want to share that. I love our relationship, and also Agnès deeply inspires me every day.

In an interview, like now, I love filming, just to remember it myself, to remember some stuff. Most of the time, I try to not speak, because I always remind myself that I have the chance to be next to her, and to have a masterclass every day about life and cinema.

“We’re not pretending to change the world, which is in such a bad shape. Every day we think about the migrants. But what can we do? So we made a film of good feelings, daring to say that whatever happens, you can share something. You can feel good with somebody” – Agnès Varda

Did you meet people who you thought didn’t deserve the treatment?

JR: No. The photos were open to anybody.

Agnès Varda: The film has been well-received. People say that it’s made them feel good, that there was so much empathy. We know the world is a disaster right now. While we were shooting, there were attacks in Paris. And the migrants in Calais, the situation. We didn’t want to get into that, because the world is in a difficult situation, and we cannot deal with that.

We decided that if we make a film with empathy, putting people together, proposing threads, proposing bridges, and seeing their sensibility, they get the feeling that it’s possible to share, and it’s possible to feel good.

We’re not pretending to change the world, which is in such a bad shape. Every day we think about the migrants. But what can we do? So we made a film of good feelings, daring to say that whatever happens, you can share something. You can feel good with somebody. You can feel good as a community. I think it makes sense for us.

JR: You always say that staying an artist is staying a utopist.

Agnès Varda: A utopist because, in a way, we cannot change. What’s happening in the world is so difficult. There are so many unhappy people. There is so much distress. There’s nowhere to go. We feel that. We feel bad. But we can only, as filmmakers, as artists, propose bridges between people. It’s good enough sometimes. That’s why, from what I see, people love the film, as a good feeling about life. So when I’m so old and being curious and enjoying life, it’s what keeps me alive. So far, so good.

You followed up The Gleaners & I with The Gleaners & I: Two Years Later. Can you do a sequel to Faces Places?

Agnès Varda: No, no, no. It’s unique, this. You agree?

JR: I agree.

Faces Places opens in UK cinemas today, September 21