OH MY GOODNESS! HOW MANY TIMES IN MY LIFE DO I HAVE TO WATCH THE EYE CUTTING SHOT FROM UN CHIEN ANDALOU!? Like, for serious. I've seen it way too many times. But I digress. The movie is PG despite a healthy attitude towards butts and that gosh darn eye cutting scene again. The butts are there for the sake of art. I just think back to my wife's comment about The Fast and the Furious franchise and how people who like that franchise tend to be the same people who are obsessed with butts. I now throw out there that Agnes Varda might be a big fan of The Fast and the Furious movies.
DIRECTORS: JR and Agnes Varda
Agnes Varda might be my favorite part of the French New Wave. There. I said it. You Godard fans will probably hate me forever, but I never really got into Godard. Sure, I like Breathless a lot, but Godard was always just too inaccessible to me. (You can easily chalk to this up to the fact that I might not be smart enough to get Godard. I can live with that accusation.) Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond are absolutely brilliant movies. When I saw that Varda co-directed a new documentary that was up for an Academy Award, I was really bummed that I couldn't see the movie before the actual Oscars. The thing is, the movie is okay. I would even say that the movie is enjoyable. But did it change my life? Actually, not really.
I hate dunking on a hero of mine, especially with what will probably (her words!) be her last film. She is such a talent and I always saw Varda as something larger than life. But this movie really sits in a cute place rather than a life-changing place. I always saw Varda's films as something revolutionary and extraordinary. They were challenging and begged me to analyze them beyond what I simply saw on the screen. Faces Places spells things out a bit too clearly for me. That attitude can be damning for someone who is just such an inspiration. For those people who aren't in the know, Faces Places teams Varda up with JR (I'm sorry, but I've never heard of him. I'm not exactly a student of photography) as they travel from village to village and use photography as art. I really like the concept. The idea of finding art in the unpretentious is kind of brilliant. The problem with this concept is that it almost feels like an Upworthy video put on repeat. The art is the same over and over. Perhaps that critique is a bit unfair. It is a variation on the same theme over and over again. Rather than matching the art to mirror its subjects, Varda and JR (I can't handle that he's just known as "JR") keep taking pictures of people and blowing them up to paste on the side of a wall. Often --and the movie doesn't really acknowledge this --the art comes across as commercial or pop art. There seems to be little depth because little thought is put into any of the pieces. They are going around from town to town and muraling a wall with a photograph. But it seems that they only spend a couple of hours from concept to execution (with the exception of a few pieces). There doesn't seem to be anything personal in it outside of the stunt of its very creation. I'm not saying all art has to be the same, but watching the process on repeat gives the film a very "reality show" vibe. What people can we photograph here? Where can we paste this photo for people to see it? It just becomes a cut and paste format (pun intended).
The bigger problem is that I actually agree with Godard in his opinion of the movie concept. (I agree with the monster that made old Agnes Varda cry on screen. It's mostly because I'm a terrible human being and need to get my soul checked out for rot.) The concept of the narrative is terribly commercial and poorly executed. The movie really toes the line of officially being a documentary. Much of the movie doesn't feel impromptu or of the moment. It feels like there is a loose script driving all of the different elements of the movie. Varda describes (and I'm paraphrasing) that chance is the greatest assistant. But there is so much that is clearly reenacted and a throughline that is superimposed on the film as a whole. As artists, I can completely understand the temptation to have fictional elements in the documentary. But the movie relies heavily on these moments. It's ironic because the New Wave and cinema verite were so crucial to the rise of a certain style of filmmaking that this movie really mirrors commercial entertainment. Since JR and Varda are both the documentarians and the subjects of the documentary, there is a complete lack of objectivity to the film. They are both artists who proclaim each others' genius. There is no criticism or distance. There is no real ugliness to their relationship. There is a story about Varda's obsession with JR's glasses, but the argument feels superficial. When JR leaves angrily, he isn't really angry. He is miming anger. He is telegraphing anger. What moments of actual teasing that Varda gives JR are kind of overblown and attributed to actual anger. It just all feels too fake. All this griping aside, there is something that I can't quite put my finger on that does feel like it has New Wave elements. Perhaps it is the use of voiceover and how it is coupled with startling imagery. That probably works the best. There are absolutely beautiful moments. I think the stuff with Varda dealing with her own mortality are very real. I think that the relationship with Godard is heartbreaking. I even think that Varda really feels for the people she meets. She does tend to love her subjects. I just think it is the relationship with JR that creates a lot of the problems with the film.
But the movie got a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I can't hate all of the 100%s, can I? I also have to point out that this might be reflective of the fact that there are too many 100% movies now. That 100% used to be unfathomable. But it was also nominated for an Oscar. (I can already read the comments that say that the Academy Awards don't mean anything. I get it. You hate stuff. Move on.) There is value here. If I watch this movie as a road trip movie, it is very fun. Yes, there is a script, but it presents itself as a documentary. But is that just me holding onto the rules of genre too tightly? Perhaps I'm supposed to be seeing the cracks in reality. Perhaps the movie is only considered a documentary because there is nothing else to really call the movie. I associate the movie with reality television because it is clean and ultimately unchallenging. Is the fault with me? Perhaps I so want the movie to be one thing and it really isn't. The odd thing is that I usually love the art-themed documentaries. But I've seen all of the other nominees this year. They were particularly memorable and impressive this year. I can see why Faces Places didn't exactly win. It is more a matter of nostalgia and is about the subjectivity of art. The art often looks cool and I can at least get behind that, but I don't necessarily see it as art that destroys my sense of self. I like that all of the interviews (and I believe that this isn't intentional) have the subjects praising the art because it is so cool. They don't look into the role of art besides being surprising and that is kind of what is going on in my mind. I get the vibe that everyone wants to leave the interview as quickly as possible. There are even a few people who have a scripted out of their interviews, which I rarely see in other documentaries. Perhaps my Agnes Varda is the one where she isn't the subject. From what I understand, she has made other movies where she is in front of the camera. I don't know if I would love these or not. I just want my Agnes Varda to be challenging and this is just fun Agnes Varda.
The weird thing is that I've already recommended this movie to others. It seems like I really savaged it. I had a good time with it, but it just wasn't what I wanted the movie to be. I feel that this movie was almost too easy. Godard might have been right at the end. He was mean as heck about it, but he calls out Varda for her manipulation. I think that's on the nose here. I know that we're supposed to be on their side, but I do feel like the movie is just a fun romp. But sometimes a fun romp is the thing we need. I did feel good about watching the movie. I like I mentioned in my last review, this movie made me happy to be absorbing cinema. But I also can still have high expectations from the things that make me happy.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.