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Cannes 2017: Self-Portraits from Agnès Varda and Abel Ferrara

Agnès Varda and JR in "Faces Places"

Few filmmakers have mastered the genre of documentary-as-diary, and most who try it succumb to self-involvement. But Agnès Varda has made some of the loveliest, most intricately woven examples of the genre, as viewers of "The Gleaners and I" and "The Beaches of Agnès" will attest.

There's a fresh dynamic at work in "Faces Places," her latest autobiographical portrait, which screened at Cannes out of competition and which she directed with the French street artist JR. At the time of filming, JR was 33 and Varda was 88. The generational distance between them has the counterintuitive effect of highlighting their commonalities. Both have their trademark costumes—he refuses to remove his sunglasses; she has her distinctive red-and-white hair—and both share a love of photography and anecdotes.

In "Faces Places," the two of them embark on a road trip, mainly in the north of France, journeying to mining country, Le Havre, and the Norman ghost town of Pirou-Plage. They visit the secluded graves of the photographers Henri-Cartier Bresson and Martine Franck. During stops, they interview and photograph the local residents, and JR turns those photos into public murals, highlighting the spirit of community in each place. The most visually arresting of these pieces depicts the wives of dockworkers. (Varda notes that there's strong support locally for the dockworkers' union, but that no one seems to talk about their wives.) JR superimposes the wives' faces on a set of high-stacked shipping containers. The wives are even able to sit in alcoves located several stories up within the artwork, at least as long as they can avoid vertigo.

Perhaps it's misguided to view "Faces Places" through the prism of the recent French presidential election, in which the far-right, anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen lost after a historically strong showing. But the movie plays as a powerful rejection of Le Pen's platform, and a defense of art's ability to inspire camaraderie and to bring people closer together. The film's biggest coup comes toward the end and is probably best kept vague. Varda plans to introduce JR to one of her former French New Wave colleagues, an auteur who has a habit of not keeping his appointments. Will he show up for the rendezvous? So far, no other question at Cannes' 70th edition has generated such suspense.

Unlike Varda, Abel Ferrara is not known for gentle self-reflection. His visits to Cannes almost invariably turn into special occasions, whether he's hosting an off-fest screening of an incendiary Dominique Strauss-Kahn film à clef or, in 2008, offering his opinion of the "Bad Lieutenant" remake. But the concert film "Alive in France" finds Ferrara at his mellowest. It's basically a hangout movie, in which Ferrara mugs, shares memories and performs with musicians who have contributed to his movies, notably Joe Delia, Paul Hipp, and Hipp's wife, Christina Chiriac. (Schoolly D is delayed by some vaguely explained travel snag.)

Although there are extraordinary uses of pre-existing music in Ferrara's movies—say, the recurrence of Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love" in "Bad Lieutenant"—Ferrara points out that most of films have been made on low budgets, requiring him to have songs written in-house.

The concerts, which were held in Toulouse and Paris last fall, coincided with a retrospective of Ferrara's films, and were a way of highlighting original compositions used in "Ms. 45" and "China Girl," among other movies. ("In the future, would you like to make films like 'Bad Lieutenant,' King of New York' and 'The Funeral' again?" asks one audience member at a Q&A featured in the documentary; it seems like a delicate way of suggesting that Ferrara has lost his touch. Not taking the bait, Ferrara answers that he no longer sees the mystique in gangsters.)

Some of the songs are catchier than others, but by the end of its 79 minutes, "Alive in France" has built up a modest groove. Ferrara gets points for leaving in the heckler who shouts "You suck!" from the crowd, even if it's only to set up the moment when his bandmate shuts her down.

Mild and not exactly necessary, "Alive in France" feels like a home movie, perhaps best suited to a Ferrara family gathering. But not streaming: "I don't watch Netflix," Ferrara blurts out at one point. At a festival currently consumed with a debate over whether Netflix is eroding the theatrical experience, Ferrara's bluntness got a major laugh.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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