I came into this movie only knowing a couple of things. First, that Agnes Varda was a very prominent female director in Europe; she was even considered the leading filmmaker of the French New Wave at the age of 30. Secondly, I knew the general concept of the film: two visual artists: Varda, a veteran of visual arts medium, and JR, a prominent, fresh-faced photographer and expert in large print projects, come together as unlikely friends. They create a multimedia project that would assert the human presence in places that many might overlook or simply miss by blinking.
Very early in the documentary, Agnes tells JR that she hopes to record all these unassuming faces in the small and forgettable locations of France – whether on film, on photographs, or on large scale prints, so that she may remember them more clearly before she dies. There really isn’t anything more humbling than seeing an important figure in history contemplate their impending mortality. So then the question becomes, “Who is this film about: Agnes or the people she meets in her journey?” This is the first impressive thing about the narrative techniques used in Visages Villages. There is a perfect yet dynamic balance between the stories of the people Agnes meets and the way they impact her life or her philosophy of life and art.
Right before the movie started, the short introduction by Gabriela Trevino from the Laredo Film Society advised the audience the documentary had experimental elements of filmmaking. After that, every moment leading up to the movie had me wondering how could a director possibly do anything experimental with a documentary, much less with a documentary so anchored in human interaction and experience. It all came down to what Agnes called the “freedom of imagination” nearing the end of the film. If this was supposed to be an attempt by Agnes to create memories, then there was no limit to what she could construct. Memory in and of itself is so faulty at times in terms of recording the objective truth. Various moments are clearly fabricated, for example the conversations between Agnes and JR; or the man sitting on a red couch reading the newspaper in an abandoned village. Again, Agnes masterfully balances realistic and constructed narratives in a way that does not belittle the significance of the villagers' stories or hers.
I believe the film poses some very important questions about memory, art, and mortality, but the central one in Visages Villages is this: What is a village? We find that a village could range from a busy and bustling community, to a lonely tenant in an abandoned apartment complex set for demolition, to a community of dockworkers and their families. A village can be devoid of buildings and space, but Agnes shows that a place cannot be defined without its people. Whether or not we take a moment to notice them in our daily lives, the people in our communities are all attempting to assert their existence in a modern world that continuously seeks to tear down and burry our history beneath the rubble of our own homes.