“Did you like our little film?”
Agnès Varda grabs my hand and holds it between hers as I try to exit the room where I’ve just spent the last ten minutes interviewing her and artist JR about their cinematic collaboration ‘Visages, Villages’ (’Faces, Places’) which premiered “Out of Competition” in Cannes. We may have learned in the film that the filmmaker has cute little feet, but I now know she also has lovely, kind hands.
“Of course I did! Why would I have wanted to interview you otherwise?!” I hear myself say, but almost as soon as the words come out, I realize I’m telling a half truth. Yes, I loved this film, its simple premise and grand cinematography and I relished the mutual respect the legendary 88 year-old filmmaker and the anonymous 33 year-old photographer show for each other throughout their road movie around the French countryside. To me, they are the new Beatles, the rockstars of cinema’s here and now. But I also craved to be in the presence of Varda and JR and would have come to interview them even if I hadn’t enjoyed the film as much as I did. It’s Madame Varda, after all, and JR, the artist — wrap your head around this — with a million Instagram followers!
As Varda absorbs my answer and looks deep into my eyes searching for any sign of manipulation, she realizes I am telling the truth. “JR, did you hear that? She loved our little film! Elle l’aimait!” And while she says so, my hands are passed onto JR’s hands, which she has managed to collect away from the next journalist entering the room, introducing herself. For a long second there, I am holding JR’s hands while Madame Varda’s seal the connection. It’s just too otherworldly, even for me! Lets just say I floated to my next appointment, down the Croisette, without remembering anything but a blue sky overhead.
But while I did the unthinkable, told you the ending of my little story first, here are the highlights of what came before that fateful handshake. And yes, Varda herself kicked off our interview!
Agnès Varda: I’m amazed, you are here from the US and you feel our film is important. Excuse me if I say so, but important because people from so many countries will write five lines or tell this story and that’s what the Cannes Film Festival does. It’s the miracle of cinema, bringing people together.
So is the main objective of cinema to bring people together?
JR: It’s one of them. But the thing is, and that’s what we love about real cinema, it’s this black box where you are cut from the world for one and a half hours, two hours and you disconnect from your phones and everything. We can’t really reproduce that at home, sitting on our couch. You’re not disconnected, you are not fully immersed the same way you are when you put 2,200 people in one room, which we had at our premiere here, and you remember that forever. The emotion, you share something, there are no words exchanged between people, they don’t look each other in the eyes and yet the emotions pass through all of us.
It was moving the watch the screening here and be there for the long, longest standing ovation!
Agnes Varda: We were really impressed, because most of the time I don’t go to my own screenings, I don’t really follow those things. But Cannes put us there in the middle and I felt the audience very strongly. Voilà, I could feel them behind me — smiling, not smiling, being touched and we thought, we’ve succeeded at something. Those people we invited you to meet, we made them familiar to you now. You’ve met the people in the film.
Do you believe cinema and streaming can exist together or should we rally to keep theaters alive?
Varda: I don’t know, I was questioning. He’s on the web world for years, he’s a hero, and has twelve thousand followers…
JR: You have twelve thousand followers! (Note: since our interview, they have grown to 15K)
Varda: Yeah, I just started last week.
JR: She counts them every day at breakfast!
Varda: Yeah, instead of counting the people who went to my movie, now I count followers. First week. But what I’m saying — JR you made me lose my line of thought! — if these people on the net are able to get us off the couch and we go to a movie theater…
JR: The new generations will watch it on Netflix, they’ll see it at home, if it was on YouTube they would watch it there. That’s why we are lucky that the film will have a real theatrical release, and we’ll try to do as many festivals as possible. Even if people will have to wait to watch it, we do believe it’s much stronger when you get to see it in such context.
Varda: (to JR) But I’m afraid that your followers don’t move! My people move.
JR: It’s not a question of moving, but the film will be in theaters.
Varda: My people will go to the theater.
JR: But how will you contact them?
Varda: They follow my films when they open.
JR: They read like old people’s magazines?
Varda: Old people’s magazines!!
You’ve had an incredible influence on JR, Ms. Varda, because before you, we never saw behind his dark glasses and now I see him peek out at the world from the top of his shades.
Varda: He can even show you and take them off completely! I love when you take them off. Nice eyes. In the film, it became like a secondary, very thin storyline. Could I get his glasses off? And when he saw me in pain at the end, frustrated by the non-encounter, he wanted to do something very nice for me and I love it, because people applauded. Like in a western, I thought they’d be touched by my pain and instead it was you, and that’s cinema. You cannot choose the emotion people have.
At this point, the publicist for the film, a lovely young woman with the kindest demeanor, comes in to announce “One last question!” Varda turns to give her a dirty look and then begins to argue for more time. Yes, that is Madame Varda doing the arguing with the publicist — not me for once.
Varda: (to the publicist) No that’s not possible! We just started to speak. There was a magic spell, and we all fell asleep and now we’re just starting to wake up. So we just started this interview! Five more minutes.
Varda: (to me) We are happy that you want to know and we feel that you liked the film.
How has being with JR challenged you or changed you?
Varda: He gave me faith that I could still do another film. He pushed me naturally and I was really impressed by his work. He was my ally, we were in the same army of people who want to propose and share. We could bring our artistic freedom into a world of work and we said, come with us, we can make something that makes us feel there is room for art, room for peace and imagination. And imagination should be allowed to be in the city as much as the rules, the law, the discussions for politics. This is our new order.
** On May 27th, ‘Visages, Villages’ was awarded the Golden Eye prize for best documentary in the festival, all across sidebars and competition. Next Sunday, March 4th, 2018 'Faces, Places' is competing for the Best Documentary Academy Award.
All images courtesy of the Festival de Cannes, used with permission.