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Visages, Villages review – Agnès Varda, people person, creates a self-referential marvel

The Guardian logo The Guardian 3 days ago Jordan Hoffman
Visages Villages film still © PR Visages Villages

“Chance has always been my best assistant,” Agnès Varda tells her first-ever co-director, the French photographer, installation artist and human whimsy machine known as JR. Varda, who turns 89 in just a few days, befriended the young art scene celeb in the last few years, though both are coy about how it happened. “It wasn’t at a disco,” they each recall in voiceover, as we watch a false reenactment; he jerking his gangly body in his sunglasses and fedora, she, with her two-toned hairdo, grooving and smirking. Eventually this film will partially unmask their camera-ready personas, but not until after they get on the road.

Visages, Villages is a movie about itself: the subjects are so warm and wonderful it’s a wise move. Varda and JR travel to small French towns in his van, which is decorated like an enormous camera. Inside is a photo-booth and large format prints spit out the side. Is there actually an assistant dropping the images out? Yes, probably, but while this movie is about the process of making art, it doesn’t want to destroy the magic entirely.

Related: Agnès Varda: 'Memory is like sand in my hand'

The pair travel and take pictures, and paste gigantic portraits on the sides of old houses and city walls. The people – ex-miners, waitresses, factory workers, spouses of dockworkers – reflect upon seeing themselves, but also just speak their mind about other topics. It can be funny, it can be melancholy. All that Varda and JR seem to care about is that it is honest.

Watching great artists at work is always a treat, but in the wrong hands can feel like a public television short. No one familiar with Varda (whose previous work includes Cléo From 5 to 7, Vagabond and The Gleaners and I) need worry about depth. The woman known for her “great eye” has sight problems, and we watch her undergo her regular eye injections. She and JR visualise this by creating a life-sized eye test chart. People hold giant letters on an outdoor staircase. With both of these artists, it always comes back to people.

While they are clearly kindred spirits, that doesn’t mean they don’t bicker. JR needles her a bit (“your wrinkles have muscles!”) and Varda’s deadpan glances to the camera rival Jack Benny’s. We meet JR’s 100-year-old grandmother; we watch Varda try to recreate a photo she took of a young man in her youth. (Nature isn’t having it, the image is literally washed away.) There’s a tangent about whether goat farmers should remove their animals’ horns. (Clearly the answer is no.) The pair sing 70s hits in the van, shop for fish, visit Henri Cartier-Bresson’s grave and Jean-Luc Godard’s home (he was a friend years ago, not so much any more.)

Godard stands up the crew and comes off as a real jerk as a result, but JR (whose ubiquitous sunglasses are very much a reminder of the great Swiss director) suggests that it may be for the betterment of the film. If there’s a message in Visages, Villages (both to us, and from Varda to her young friend) is that one does not need to be a tortured and nasty person to make great art. She is living and still-working proof.

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