VARDA / JR
yeux dans les yeux

Ryoko Sekiguchi, écrivain et traductrice, au restaurant Botanique, 71, rue de la Folie-Méricourt.

Ryoko Sekiguchi, writer and translator, in the restaurant Botanique, at 71, rue de la Folie-Méricourt.

Agnès Varda in the streets of New York and with JR in his photobooth truck.
Agnès Varda and JR, with the workers of the Arkema factory.

It’s a film about the thousand and one faces of France. It’s also a story about the friendship between an 88-year-old film director, Agnès Varda, and a 34-year-old artist, JR. Varda has brought the free spirits that usually remain off-screen“gleaners,” squatters, graffiti artists and such likefront and center to French cinema. JR, meanwhile, holds up a larger-than-life mirror to everyday people by creating monumental images of them on city walls. From July 2015 to October 2016, the two played hooky, crisscrossing France from north to south aboard a photobooth truck that gave anyone a chance to have their portrait taken instantly. Varda and JR met farmers, workers, children, widows and mailmen. They also met one another, going ever deeper into their joint project, which is filled with poetry, humor and a cheering spirit of rebellion against the gloom of the present times.

What was the idea behind the film?

Agnès Varda It was a very simple idea: to travel around together, crisscrossing rural Francewhich JR doesn’t really know as he’s primarily an urban artist and, without any preconceived script, to set out to visit places and meet people.

One of your encounters, the mailman from Bonnieux, encapsulates the way in which you managed to harmonize your worlds.

AV Yes, I’m used to sending letters and postcards. JR uses the Internet. When he mails something, he instantly gets thousands of likes. So I said to him: “You have thousands of virtual friends; well, I want you to meet a real mailman face to face.” He immediately wanted to make this Luberon mailman into a hero by using a photo of him I had taken a few years ago, enlarging this portrait of him and putting it up on the village wall. This shift and these kinds of exchanges served as the basis for our project.

There was also the encounter with Janine, which focuses on an aspect of French tradition that is on the brink of extinctionthe miner’s cottage.

AV We wanted to go to northern France. So we went to Bruay-la-Buissière, a village in the Pas-de-Calais region . . .

JR . . . and we happened upon an area of miners’ cottages slated for demolition, and met Janine, who was the only person living in this street, the last one still holding out . . .

AV . . . and we immediately loved her . . .

JR . . . so we took her photo and plastered it on her cottage. We also salvaged archival photos of all the miners in the region, created images, and put them on all of the facades in the street. So Janine was once again surrounded by the community that had vanished.

Through your joint vision, were you aiming to portray a certain aspect of France?

JR It’s true we were traveling through France, but the project had a more emotional and personal dimension to it.

It may be emotional and poetic, but your film sometimes has an activist dimension to it, at least as a film that aims to give a voice to those who aren’t usually heard.

JR Our approach as artists is essentially political. We aim to give everyday people a kind of nobility by making them larger than life. But these are things you do intuitively. And then there is also an entirely different dimension to the film that has to do with the way we look at the world. Firstly, Agnès was really ticked off at me for keeping my dark glasses on! And then for my part, I’ve helped her document a maximum number of things before she loses her sight.

AV Come on, JRI don’t like talking about my eye problems.

JR But we have to talk about them because really it is the true, underlying subject of the film. It was about traveling to all those places and capturing a maximum number of images before everything fades for you. To me, this story structures the film more than traveling around France together in a truck.

AV I don’t see the movie that way!

As I understand it, you don’t agree on the film’s subject?

AV I saw it as being about two people traveling around together, meeting people, collecting portraits, stories and impressions.

JR For me, my aim was to try and see through Agnes’ eyes, either by capturing images that are now blurry to her, or by helping her to create images that she has in mind. It’s a visual duet of a film in a way.

There’s a very funny scene where you photograph Agnès’s eyes and hands and feet.

JR At first, I just wanted to photograph her eyes. And then I went on to do her hands, her ears, her toes. Gradually, I developed the idea of taking these fragments of Agnes to places where she will never go again. We chartered a train and hung all these photographic “pieces” of her, and the train will travel all over France.

When I watch you together I get the feeling a kind of filial bond has been forged between you. Is real family the one we create for ourselves?

AV It’s true, we’re like family. I love his grandmother, I love his partner. Family is those you feel closest to.

What irritates you most about each other?

AV His way of filming me all the time with his little camera, when I eat, when I rub my eyes. It’s really annoying.

JR Agnès shoves my camera away when it gets on her nerves, and that gets on my nerves! But sometimes she really gets into it anwd we have made some pretty funny Instagrams. Do you remember, Agnes, the photo where we were dressed up as cosmonauts?

AV See, we really have our head in the clouds at times.

Agenda

VISAGES, VILLAGES

En salles le 28 juin 2017.

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Prisca & Olivier Courtin-Clarins: word for word