This year, I took my second trip to the French Riviera for the Festival de Cannes. I was excited and expectant about entering in the exhausting fray of back-to-back screenings and seeing films with little to no context. I am still, very much, a learner. Indeed the feeling of being an outsider / unimportant / desperate is one that indiscriminately seeps into the egos of even well-established festival goers. Everyone, no matter the colour of their festival pass, is, at some point or another, subjected to hours of queuing, criticism of personal appearance and rejection.
One wonders if even the ‘top tier’ of filmmakers and stars are also brushed by that feeling of being an intruder. It’s probably inevitable at a festival with 70 years of glamour and prestige under its belt; a festival where even the films in competition reference the stature and historical weight of the event. See, for example, Le Redoutable, in which Luis Garrel plays a despondent Jean Luc Godard, who successfully lobbied to cancel the festival 1968 in respect of the civil unrest sweeping across France that year. Or see Hong Sang-Soo’s Claire’s Camera in which Isabelle Huppert’s opening line – ‘I’ve never been to Cannes before’ – was met with knowing laughter at a festival screening.
That feeling of being an intruder is heightened by the many traditions and rituals one experiences at festival screenings. I have never applauded a logo before, but the Festival de Cannes’ oddly tacky logo and ascending stairway sequence gets one every time. Take a look at it here . It screens ahead of every film and is always applauded. This year, the names of Cinema’s heavy weights were added to each step (changing daily). The inclusion of the names makes the sequence even more outlandish – the festival openly flashing its predilections, and further adding to the ‘exclusive club’ vibe.
Another ritual that had me baffled is that of the ‘Raoul shout-out’ which often happens ahead of screenings in the Debussy theatre (the second largest of the festival, next to the Lumière). The first time I heard the howling ‘Raouuuul!’ yelled into the dark auditorium, I assumed someone was just desperately looking for their friend. Saving seats isn’t easy in the packed theatres, so – y’know, understandable that someone might crack under the pressure. I wasn’t expecting the shout-out to be met by a flutter of laughter, applause and sighing. Just a funny one-off perhaps? Poor lost Raoul! But no – the exact same thing happened the very next day. Turns out, the ‘Raoul shout-out’ is a long standing tradition in the Debussy – and there is much speculation as to its origin. Some cite a 30+ year heritage, hailing it an ‘emblem of Cannes clubbiness’ whilst others suggest it perfectly captures the overwhelming need to find a friend, felt by even the most established festival veterans, in amidst all that flagrant hierarchy.
Anyway, enough of all that. Onto the reason everyone is there – however lost (respect Raoul) – to celebrate film!
Dir: Agnès Varda & JR
Perhaps Agnès Varda has some sense of being an outsider at the Festival de Cannes. Despite global admiration for her work (which has been awarded at international festivals including the Golden Lion for Vagabond at Venice in ’85), only a small selection of her films have been presented at Cannes. She was awarded an honorary Palme d’Or in 2015, but it would be another two years until she would present her latest film (nine years since her last), Visages Villages, at the Festival.
The film is Varda’s first co-directed work; a seemingly improbable collaboration with superstar artist, photographer and muralist JR. Watching the pair walk the red carpet together ahead of the premier off-set any anxieties I had about the likelihood of their friendship – their deep-rooted respect and droll comic synergy was clearly authentic.
Visages Villages is a documentary film in which Varda and JR embark on a journey across France in JR’s camera shaped van, which can instantly print large-scale photographs for his renowned mural artworks. Along the way, the pair visit their nation’s villages, meeting strangers and mounting murals of their photographs, revisiting Varda’s memories and, most importantly, forging a friendship. JR’s mischievous but principled respect for his elders (including his 100 year old grandmother, whom we meet along with Varda at her home) is apparent throughout. It’s clear that Varda is very much calling the shots from the outset. ‘Chance has always been my best assistant,’ she states early on, leaving JR to the happy role of Varda’s travel companion.
To match JR’s respect for age, Varda is herself joyfully invested in celebrating youth. She reminisces about old friends not with sadness, but with fond regard. She’s conscious that her memories can enrich the present. Although we observe Varda (in her 89th year, no less) undergoing regular eye-injections and struggling to walk at ease, she resourcefully finds outlets for her insatiable, youthful energy. Whether it’s JR gleefully pushing Varda’s wheelchair through the Louvre in a playful re-enactment of a scene from Bande à Part or Varda’s frequent engagement with modern techniques, the film is as much about respecting our past as it is about embracing the present.
Indeed, whilst Varda is always keen to reminisce (she once described her memories as ‘sand in my hand’), the film also carries a message of calm acceptance; of time passing and allowing space for new ideas and new friends to come along. It is a sentiment beautifully captured in a photograph of Guy Bourdin taken in 1954, which Varda and JR paste onto an old WW2 bunker. Overnight, the image, which Varda holds dear, is washed away by the sea – something that is briefly acknowledged before the pair move on to make new stories with new friends.
Along the journey, with every encounter that Varda & JR have – whether with the wives of the Le Havre dockworkers, or a goat farmer fighting to protect goat horns – new friendships are forged. It is a healthy reminder that despite the distractions and sufferings of modern living, kindness is not a dying art. Indeed, it is this realisation that reassures us in the final moments of the film when Varda’s old friend, Jean Luc Godard, refuses to see her. Varda is visibly hurt, but reassurance is quick to follow from her new friend, JR.
There is speculation that Visages Villages will be Varda’s last. I hope not, but if it is, there is much to celebrate in this film which is so honestly about love and kindness and the joy of sharing stories with friends old and new.
Keep an eye out for more of Jo’s favourites as well as more Cannes reports from the ICO team in the coming week!