Iconic Nouvelle Vague director Agnès Varda recently roamed across France with JR, an artist renowned for his giant, black-and-white photos displayed in public spaces. The resulting poetic road movie received the award for Best Documentary Film at Cannes this year and will come out in U.S. theaters on October 6.
“Are you game?” asks JR at the start of the film, as they discuss their future collaborative project. “I’m always game to see simple landscapes, villages, and faces,” replies Agnes Varda in her characteristic tone. With their concept mapped out, the duo prepares to work together for the first time, traveling across France, stopping in places that resonate with them, and meeting the people who live there. This unique project is led by a crack team. Agnès Varda is one of the last living emblems of the Nouvelle Vague. From La Pointe Courte in 1954 to The Beaches of Agnes, her latest film, she has spent her life creating an eclectic body of work halfway between documentary and fiction. JR is a star of the urban art scene, famed for having displayed immense portraits of Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank barrier in 2007 and, more recently, on the border wall between the United States and Mexico.
The pair climb aboard JR’s “photo-truck” and embark on an improvised road trip from northern France to Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in the south. This is no ordinary truck, however. People they meet on their journey are invited to venture inside, much like a photo booth. Their large-scale photo portraits emerge several seconds later. In every step of the adventure, random members of the public such as villagers, workers, and farmers all take part in the magic of this studio on wheels. After every encounter, the printed photos are stuck to the sides of their houses, on factory walls, on water towers, and on shipping containers.
Using this unique method, the two artists follow their inspiration and breathe life back into an abandoned part of the village of Pirou in La Manche, celebrate the postman in Bonnieux in Vaucluse, and erect totems in homage to the wives of dockers in Le Havre. When speaking to a mechanic who asks what their installations are for, Agnès Varda replies that “it’s all about the power of imagination. We allow ourselves to imagine things, and ask people if we can let our imaginations run wild where they live.” Beyond the artistic exercise, the interaction with the people they meet are often moving, such as the woman in northern France who refuses to leave her former mining village despite being its last inhabitant, and the worker who, when interviewed in his factory the day before retiring, admits feeling “on the edge of a cliff.”
Agnès Varda and JR form a comedic on-screen duo, constantly teasing each other and laughing at their differences. He is a thirty something street artist with a gawky style, and she is a small, plump filmmaker approaching 90. They are 55 years apart, but they act like an old married couple! He makes fun of her renowned two-toned hair, and she scolds him for never taking off his dark sunglasses. But their age difference slowly offers more than mere material for jokes. As their journey progresses, their friendship develops and Agnès Varda confides in JR. She speaks frankly about her faltering eyesight, the time she has left, the passing of loved ones such as her husband, the director Jacques Demy, and of her friend, the photographer Guy Bourdin, whose giant photo portrait JR sticks to the side of a concrete blockhouse on an empty beach. An ephemeral image soon to be swept away by the dawn tides…
Watch the trailer: