As Faces Places makes L.A. debut, she brings The Gleaners & I and Vagabond to the American Cinematheque
At the age of 89 filmmaker Agnès Varda remains wonderfully open to life, her sense of curiosity about people and empathy for them undiminished across the decades.
That is evident in her latest documentary, Faces Places (Visages Villages) co-directed by the artist/photographer JR, which takes the pair across France for a series of rencontres with ordinary people -- among them dock workers and their wives, a mailman, the last remaining resident of a series of row houses slated for demolition.
Varda "has continued to push herself creatively in ways that are bold, risky and utterly of a piece with the past of the medium she loves and has come to embody," wrote critic Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post. “Faces Places is a film of sheer joy, its exuberance surpassed only by its tenderness and purity of purpose."
This documentary takes the shape of a road trip infused with equal parts whimsy, artistic experimentation and awe-inspiring monumentality.
The film expands to more cities in the U.S. on Friday, after opening in New York and L.A. earlier in the month (theater info here).
In her review, Hornaday compared Faces Places to some of Varda's earlier work, including her classic documentary The Gleaners & I (2000) and her narrative/fiction film Vagabond (1985). Both of those films screened at the American Cinematheque Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood last Friday, with Varda in attendance. Like Faces Places, The Gleaners & I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse) also takes audiences on a perambulating, whimsical tour of France, introducing us to people often ignored in that country (and in ours) -- those who out of need or principle collect food wasted by farmers, restaurateurs, their fellow citizens.
Below are two brief videos of Varda at the Egyptian -- the first from her introduction of The Gleaners & I and the second from a Q&A after the screening moderated by Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson. (I have provided subtitles to assist with understanding Varda's English, a language she only began to learn well into adulthood).
In conversation with Larson, the director spoke about the characters in The Gleaners & I, whom some might regard as down and out.
"These people, I gave them the time to express their opinion about society, to say something. They don't speak like so-called 'bums'" Varda said. "They deserve respect."
More quotes from Agnès Varda, from her appearance at the American Cinematheque:
I've made films mostly [about] people in the margins, people like gleaners, squatters, fishermen, abandoned people. Because it is so terrible that our society doesn't allow the people to be different.
We have to have the power of imagination. We should not lose that power.
I learned a lot. That's why I love to do documentaries. We learn about people... And people that we would not approach if not interested in knowing them, filming them.
We were as delicate as possible and not to hurt them but listen to what they had to say.
I always hate the idea that because it's a documentary it should be boring... We have seen plenty of them.
What means 'modern'? Modern -- 10 years after it is no longer modern. When we did the French New Wave it was supposed to be new. Now we are the old French New Wave.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.