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At Cannes, the screen belongs to female filmmakers

Directors Agnes Varda and JR, for the film Visages/Villages (Faces/Places) pose with musician Matthieu Chedid aka M . REUTERS/Stephane Mahe


It took an 88-year-old grandmother to make me cry at Cannes. At a festival that has frequently been criticized for its paucity of women directors, the two best films so far of this year's 70th-anniversary edition have been delivered by the very same, one by an emerging German auteur, the other by a veteran French filmmaker. The latter brought on my waterworks, but more on that later.

Alas, Claire Denis's much anticipated and rather dodgily titled Let the Sunshine In, the opening film of the Director's Fortnight, does not belong in this auspicious company. I read Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse on the airplane over to prepare for Denis's version, which she says takes from his essay-novel the subject of "the agony of love," but nothing of Barthes's dense discursiveness remains in her would-be romantic comedy, which delivers a different kind of agony.

Juliette Binoche plays the film's heroine Isabelle, a celebrated abstract painter, who spends the film's 94 minutes searching for a perfect love, and finding only a long line of jerks and narcissists – an arrogant banker, a game-playing actor, a tart-tongued artist. (The working-class mec she ends up with near the end may be the most selfless and decent of the lot, but it's hard to shake the impression that he looks like a descendant of Bela Lugosi.) The only director who could make such a weepy, exhausted heroine – "I'm tired" is Isabelle's tear-stained mantra – into someone profoundly sympathetic and fascinating is Eric Rohmer (as in his masterpiece Le Rayon vert, which I could happily watch every day of my life).

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At one point, Isabelle sits staring at a photo of another abstract painter, Joan Mitchell – one of the greatest of all American artists – and one could only imagine what the life-toughened Mitchell would make of this sob sister. An exchange somewhere in Sunshine's mopey middle offered the bluntest of auto-critiques when Isabelle says to one of her many lovers, "I thought it would never end," and he replies, "It's nice when it ends." In the case of the interminable Sunshine: exactement.

A key figure in what has been dubbed the Berlin School – directors who, in contrast to their New German Cinema forebears (Fassbinder, Herzog, et al.), mostly work in a cool, elliptical mode – Valeska Grisebach delivers on the promise of her first two features with the superb Western. The film's slow accretion of detail and delayed revelation of character will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the Berlin School, as will its transformation from documentary-seeming to narrative. A triple portrait – of a dusty, sun-baked Bulgarian village, of a company of German workers who arrive to work on its electrical system, and of a middle-aged loner in the latter group – Western occasionally looks as though it will succumb to the expectations set by its title, but genre turns out to be the least of its concerns.

Grisebach always employs non-professional actors, and the gaunt, chain-smoking Meinhard Neumann brings parched intensity to his central role as an emotionally distant, weathered ex-soldier who, unlike his swaggering, nationalistic compatriots, finds a new lease on life in this forbidding foreign locale. Like at least two Italian auteurs I can think of, Antonio Pietrangeli and Bernardo Bertolucci, Grisebach includes a dance sequence as a signature. Western may be a bit too pleased with its refusal to succumb to what its many ominous details and violent incidents portend – a Deliverance-like descent into outback barbarity – but Neumann's tentative swaying to music at a communal dance at film's end turns that avoidance into something like grace.

Agnès Varda and the young photo-artist she greatly admires, who goes by the initials JR, make a study in opposites in their co-authored film Faces/Places (Visages, Villages); he is young, tall and lanky, and she a wizened dumpling in flowing clothes and two-toned hair. Both share a scrim through which they see the world – the trademark black shades he wears, and the blur left by her eye disease. (Eyes are a motif in the film, which at one point segues from the madly staring orb of a monkfish to a close-up of Varda's eye being operated on, which she later says reminds her of the famously sliced eyeball in Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou.) The two also share a passion for meeting "new faces," which JR photographs and pastes massive prints of to buildings, factories, trains, water towers.

Varda and JR set out on a road trip across France to discover everyday faces and unlikely places – a half-built, abandoned village; the world's tiniest cemetery (where Cartier-Bresson is buried); the Swiss village where Jean-Luc Godard has long lived. The octogenarian Varda states that her films and photographs are stays against loss, so that people "don't fall through the holes of my memory." As in Varda's classic documentary The Gleaners and I, Faces/Places becomes an ambulatory essay – on evanescence, resistance, work and, mostly, memory. The memorialist tendency indeed proves strongest: Not only does the film summon up Varda's career as director and photographer but it becomes, like her late friend Chris Marker's work, a meditation on mortality. "Remembering the dead is good," Varda simply states and assures JR that she welcomes the thought of her oncoming demise.

There are inevitable patches of whimsy and preciousness, but the film is generous, funny and very moving. The disparate duo, who throughout sit on benches and chairs to ponder their ongoing project, prove immensely endearing, and the many workers they encounter on their trek – a shy waitress who becomes an international Instagram phenom from their wall-size photo of her; an old, rotten-toothed artist who has created an exotic paradise in the forest to live in – cohere into a collective portrait of a country where tradition and solidarity, empathy and ideals still exist.

When an old woman who has refused to leave her condemned row of miners' homes first catches sight of the enormous homage photo of her face that JR has affixed to her house front, she bursts into tears. So did I in the poignant finale, when Varda attempts to visit her old friend, Jean-Luc Godard. If this proves to be Varda's last film, she has bid adieu to her faces and her places in the most affecting way possible.

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James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.

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