Oscar Movie Roundup! Agnès Varda, for the love of cinema
Image: Faces Places, Cohen Media Group
In the lead up to the Oscars, we will be posting reviews for some of the nominated movies. The second review in our series is for Faces Places, nominated for Best Documentary Feature. The previous entry in this series was a review for Lady Bird.
The mid-1950s brought a shift in filmmaking with the French New Wave. The movement is generally associated with a group of male filmmakers: Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette. The origin of the French New Wave, however, can be traced to director Agnès Varda.
Her debut film, La Pointe Courte (1955), came four years before Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), a film that is most often credited as the inaugural work of the movement. La Pointe Courte was representative of a new mode of filmmaking in France; it was shot on location in a small fisherman’s village, combined professional and non-professional actors, and had an incredibly low budget. Unlike the male filmmakers of the movement, who began as critics for the film journal Cahiers du cinéma, 25-year-old Varda was a newcomer to the industry, with no training or knowledge of cinema.
Varda, now 89-years-old, has received a Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature for her most recent film Faces Places (2017), co-directed with French artist JR. This comes after Varda’s acceptance of an honorary Oscar last November, which marked the beginning of Hollywood’s belated recognition of Varda. Despite the pride that this acknowledgement would generally elicit for a filmmaker, Varda, quite frankly, does not seem to care, stating “I love my own work and I’ve done it for so many years, so I didn’t do it for honor or money. My films never made money.” In 2001, when asked what she believed her films offer people, Varda responded “I would say love for filming, intuition. […] Finding beauty where it’s maybe not. Seeing.” It is this desire to capture “beauty where it’s maybe not”—a pure love for cinema—that is central to Varda’s entire career.
The concept of Faces Places is fairly simple: Varda and JR travel through villages in France, take photos of the people they meet, and plaster the large-scale portraits in public spaces of the villages. The people they meet aren’t glamourous or beautiful in any obvious way, and that’s the whole point. These are people who would normally go unnoticed, but instead, they become monumental. Among the many faces, there’s Jeanine, a woman living in a former mining town. Jeanine is the last person living in a row of miner’s houses that are due to be demolished, but she refuses to leave her home. There are the wives of dockworkers, filling domestic roles or holding their own careers. Looking at Varda’s body of work, it’s no surprise that these ordinary villagers, who show us beauty in their daily triumphs, are the subjects that interested her.
In 1971, Simone de Beauvoir penned the Manifesto of the 343, demanding for the legalization of abortion in France. The manifesto was supported by 343 people who, in their signing of the declaration, admitted to illegally having an abortion, including Varda and notable figures such as actress Catherine Deneuve and writer Marguerite Duras.
Six years later, Varda made One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977)—an ode to the lives of those involved in the French women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. The film follows the friendship of Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) and Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard). Pauline, a schoolgirl, recognizes Suzanne’s photo in a gallery she passes. The two used to live in the same building, but Pauline hasn’t heard from her since she moved. Pauline asks the photographer (Robert Dadiès), a man Suzanne is having an affair with, for her address. When Pauline visits her, Suzanne tells of her destitute situation. She is pregnant with her third child and cannot afford to keep the baby, nor can she afford an abortion. Pauline helps Suzanne pay for the procedure and a friendship forms between the two women. Following the suicide of the photographer, the father of Suzanne’s two children, she moves away to her parents’ farm, and the women lose touch. After this opening, the film shows Pauline and Suzanne ten years later. They reconnect at a demonstration for reproductive rights, and their bond is still intact. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t shows them in their lives as mothers, wives, and activists as they correspond through postcards.
The story of Pauline and Suzanne would have been familiar to those advocating for the legalization of abortion in the 1970s and still is familiar to people fighting for reproductive rights in 2018. Varda, however, captures beauty in the shared experience between Pauline and Suzanne—two women who continually support each other when society fails to support them.
Varda’s second feature film, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), illustrates a different way of seeing beauty through the titular character’s shift from object to subject of vision. Cléo (Corinne Marchand) is a Parisian pop singer, conventionally beautiful and self-centered. The film follows her in real-time as she awaits the results of a medical test that will confirm a cancer diagnosis. From the beginning of the film, the viewer is inundated with close-ups and the reflection of her face in mirrors. We must, like Cléo, contemplate her image. The halfway point of the film, however, marks a transformation. Cléo becomes the subject of vision—a voyeur of the lives around her. She begins to listen in on conversations, to blend in with the rest of Paris.
In the final act, she meets Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller), a soldier who is on leave from the Algerian War. They share their fears with each other, Cléo with her test results and Antoine’s worries about returning to Algeria that day. Antoine accompanies Cléo to the hospital, where she receives the results—positive for cancer. The possibility of a cancer diagnosis has been worrying her all day, throughout the whole film. But what she feels is relief. It’s not that Cléo has realized that others have it worse, but she has found beauty beyond herself—everyone is as alive as her. As Antoine puts it, they’re “both in the same spot.”
As voyeurs of the subjects Varda presents, we are all Cléo. If we too can find the beauty in the people of Faces Places, we can, for a moment, see the world like Varda.