When French street artist JR met film legend Agnès Varda to work on their new documentary, Faces Places, he was 33 years old. Varda met Jean-Luc Godard when she was the same age. It was the late 1950s and they used to hang out with Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy, in a Montparnasse restaurant, La Ville de Douarnenez. Along with François Truffaut, they are responsible for the French New Wave.
In the movie JR and the audience are enraptured by stories like these, but the emphasis is on ordinary people. Together the unlikely couple, he a lanky young man with black sunglasses and a hipster hat, she an energetic and vibrant octogenarian with two-toned hair, cut an eccentric line through the French countryside.
They meet a miner’s wife, the last occupant of a row of houses, formerly a bustling community now slated for demolition. To honor her, JR shoots her portrait in black-and-white and, in his trademark style, enlarges it enough to cover the house’s facade. Needless to say she is moved but understandably disconcerted when she steps out of her front door and is confronted with her own epic visage.
Unemployment and a stagnant economy are hardships prevalent throughout Europe as well as the U.S. heartland. “It’s everywhere in France. It’s a crisis. In the factory world, they cut the workers, the factories are shut,” says Varda, who, at the age of 88, visited Los Angeles for the film’s North American premiere.
A homeless man called Pony invites the duo for a cup of tea. When we first meet him he bears the wounded countenance of a life on the streets, but when he is in his element, an ersatz home of his own design decorated with his artwork, his features soften. “I have everything I need right here,” he smiles. He wears the same expression in his portrait, printed from JR’s mobile photo booth and pasted into a mural of the townspeople.
Varda encountered JR’s work when she noticed a pair of massive eyes over the Seine, a work he completed in 2009. “I said, ‘Who put those eyes like the Egyptians, like the Aztecs?’ The eyes are a beautiful symbol. We want to see the eyes of other people,” she recalls.
JR began as a graffiti artist in Paris but took up photography after finding a camera in the Metro. Scale became a hallmark of his work, along with celebrating regular people and incorporating them into his process. Women Are Heroes documented his project in Rio de Janeiro, Sierra Leone and other cities where he saluted community women as the backbone of their societies despite being the primary victims of war and social injustice. He followed with Inside Out: The People’s Art Project, a doc about the largest participatory art project ever, and in 2015 directed Robert DeNiro in a short film called Ellis.
“I’ve always leaned toward documentary because I’ve had to document my work,” says the artist, who remains anonymous. In fact, throughout the movie he thwarts Varda’s efforts to remove his sunglasses. “I think it will change, for sure, the way I will make film in the future, because you cannot stay untouched working with someone like Agnès who brings documentary to another level.”
JR made headlines just last month with his most recent installation, a 50-foot-high baby peering over the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border in Tecate. It reportedly drew hundreds of people from both sides to take selfies and share their impressions. “It’s what gave me the idea of doing a picnic, because people would pass cellphones through the fence to take a photo of them,” he explains.
He shows an aerial shot looking down at a pair of eyes stretched out on a massive picnic table bisected by the border fence. “We passed the salad, the food and everything through the fence, which is illegal. But they can close their eyes on this.”
Upon first meeting, Varda and JR connected immediately. It happened on a Monday and they began work on the following Wednesday. In the process of filming they found a palpable joy in the places they visited and the people they photographed, with the exception of one.
Godard and Truffaut are mainly credited with the beginnings of the French New Wave. Godard’s Breathless is a masterpiece, as is Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, as well as Varda’s own Cleo From 5 to 7. But it is her seminal 1955 movie La Pointe Courte, mixing documentary footage with haphazard narrative and a learn-as-you-go candor, that established the aesthetic hallmarks of the movement. Not only did she pioneer a style but she's among the first modern feminist voices in film, frequently choosing women as her protagonist. This November she will receive an honorary Oscar.
Varda was married to fellow filmmaker Demy, who is known for the Catherine Deneuve classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. When Demy died in 1990 at the age of 59, the ever-eccentric Godard did not send the usual condolences. Instead Varda received a telegram bearing the name of their old haunt: La Ville de Douarnenez.
“It was a very enigmatic way to say I remember that time,” she recalls. “So when we went to shoot, I thought JR would love to meet Godard.” She notified him ahead of time at his home in Switzerland. But when they showed up with their cameras, Godard was not there. But he left them a cryptic message written on the window: “La Ville de Douarnenez.”
“So instead of speaking to me, naming Jacques who he loved and I loved, it put me in a very sentimental attack of pain,” says Varda, who appears bereft in the film. “At the same time I still love him because we shared such beautiful times, with Jacques and him together. I feel like I cannot kill what I have in my memory.”
JR appears unfazed by the non-encounter, noting that Godard, in his own way, wrote a page of their screenplay. Varda appreciates his ability to see Godard’s presence in his absence. “Just an action can make people feel a little better just for the time being, or maybe they will just look at a photo and feel good. The world is too cruel, the world is too violent,” she sighs. “We cannot just add our sadness to the sadness. We have to fight. We have to believe in something better.”