Agnes Varda is indefatigable. It is a word that she would probably like and, after living 90 years and making over 50 documentaries, she has certainly earned it. She describes herself more simply as ‘down to earth’. In this charming little feature doco she teams up with a young photo-montagist calling himself JR. They met by accident and they keep that spirit of serendipity going as much as possible. The idea behind the film is deliberately simple but surprisingly satisfying. They hit the road together and make images of the faces of the people that they bump into. In particular, JR is a photographer who takes his photos and then blows them up to house-sized images. Then he (and some occasional helpers) pastes them on buildings usually to the delight of the ordinary folk that partake in the process.
Varda (Vagabond, The Gleaners and I) is an institution in French cinema (she was married to revered director Jacques Demy), but she doesn’t trade on that or like to hang out with famous types in Paris. Au contraire, she wants to get out and meet the men and women who are the ‘real’ France if you like. They might be waitresses or farmers or goat herders or church bell-ringers or factory workers. It doesn’t matter, what matters is that she can talk to them and, with her unpretentious charm and unfaked curiosity, connect with them and add them to her still-growing collection of memories and connections.
Of course, along the way this becomes a record of social change and of aspects of French life that may be fading irrevocably or morphing into something else. She is fully aware of that, but the general tone is not merely that of a lamentation or an accusation against modernity. Life goes on and that is how it should be. The artist can be a recorder of such things and, in doing so, can raise ‘journalism’ to the status of art.