There was once a time — it now sounds ageist and sexist — when something would get written off as “an old man’s movie.” That meant a film created by a director at an age where just watching it, you could feel a certain stiffness in the joints, a too-slowed-down-for-its-own-good pace, a nagging (as opposed to enlightening) stillness of gaze. Examples of old man’s movies would be Alain Resnais’ “Wild Grass,” Elia Kazan’s “The Last Tycoon,” and — to me, though many would consider this opinion blasphemous — Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran.” But has there ever been a director who gives the lie to the old-man’s-movie trope like Agnès Varda? She’s 88, and makes films like she’s 28. Her movies are the opposite of old wo(man’s) movies. They’re a tonic — just watching them makes you feel younger.
Her new one, “Visages Villages” (which does indeed take place in villages, though the idiomatic translation is “Faces Places”), is another roving personalized documentary made in the cinematic thrift-shop spirit of “The Gleaners and I” (2000) and “The Beaches of Agnès” (2008). Both those films were enchanting, and this one is too, though here Varda raises the bar on what she’s doing, because her premise is so slender that she appears, at times, to be conjuring the film out of thin air. Agnès Varda, in the glory of her golden years, has become a humanist magician.
In “Visages Villages,” she teams up with the renegade French graffiti-artist-turned-outsize-street-photographer known as JR, who could be characterized as a rough Gallic equivalent to Banksy. He and Varda met in 2015 and quickly recognized each other as kindred spirits, despite their rather dramatic differences: He’s a prankish and supremely laid-back 33-year-old millennial hipster who never takes off his pork-pie hat and sunglasses, and she’s a New Wave legend in two-toned hair whose face still expresses the beautiful gravity that always defined her. Yet both are outsider artists, committed to visualizing life by making up their own rules. “Chance has always been my best assistant,” says Varda, and she’s not kidding. In this movie, she leaves nearly everything to chance.
Varda and JR, who share directing credit, begin to travel around, with a single liberating agenda: In each place they visit, they’ll meet the people there, and JR will produce his epic-size black-and-white portraits of them, which they will then plaster on houses, barns, storefronts: any available surface. In doing so, they will render the people large. Larger than life? No. As large as life.
Varda, who tends to blurt out whatever’s on her mind, says that JR’s refusal to remove his sunglasses reminds her of Godard in the ’60s, who also kept his gaze hidden. She flashes clips from her five-minute 1961 burlesque short “Les Fiancés du pont Mac Donald ou (Méfiez-vous des lunettes noires),” which starred Godard and Anna Karina, and in that movie Godard looked almost innocent, but by the end of “Visages Villages” he will come back to haunt her.
Varda’s spirit could hardly be less glassed in. She and JR travel in his photo truck, which is charmingly decorated to look like a giant camera. It has a photo booth inside, as well as equipment that allows them to blow up the photographs they take and print them onto enormous paper stock. Along the way, they meet and talk to a group of coal miners (whose giant craggy faces end up on old brick buildings) and a farmer who once ran his 500 acres of land all by himself (he winds up as a 30-foot-tall image on the side of a barn). They also talk to, and photograph, factory workers, cheese makers, truck drivers. It’s a sketchbook of working-class rural French life, and the images that emerge from it are playful and spooky and beautiful and moving: Andy Warhol meets Walker Evans. They loom over the landscape; just looking at them is an antidepressant.
There is no mention of politics, yet “Visages Villages” may be the most profound political movie to play at Cannes this year. Its “message” is simplicity itself: Everyone is who they are. Yet in capturing anonymous workers as images of transcendent individuality, “Visages Villages” makes a powerful statement about the kind of society we’re becoming, in which the one percent don’t just own too much of everything; they get all the attention too. Our addiction to wealth and celebrity has begun to suck the air out of the appreciation for ordinary life, and this film offers a sublime rebuke to that.
Varda and JR are bumptious companions who tease each other into confessions and flights of fancy. Varda won’t stop bugging JR about his sunglasses, to the point that they become an active annoyance for her. She also uses shots she took decades ago to meditate on her friendship with the late fashion photographer Guy Bordin, and she muses upon her own death, summing up her feelings about it with the perfect cosmic retort: “I’m looking forward to it. Because that’ll be that.”
And then there’s Godard. He’s an old friend of Varda’s, a long-time comrade of her and her late husband, the director Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”), and near the end of the movie she and JR take a train to visit him. When Godard fails to show up at a café at the appointed time, they wind up in front of his house, where he has scrawled a cryptic message in magic marker that leaves Varda in tears. She’s wounded, and calls him a “dirty rat.” Yet if Godard, in this movie, represents the weight of the past, Varda’s communion with JR suggests the promise of the future, never more so than when he proves his friendship by giving her what feels, for a moment, like the ultimate gift. He takes off his sunglasses.