By Jeremy Carr.
Once you accept and appreciate the superficial contrast between Agnès Varda (a legendary filmmaker, diminutive, inspirationally enthusiastic if rigid by age — she is pushing 90, after all) and JR (tall, lanky, young and mobile, a quintessentially hip modern artist), the rest of Faces Places begins to comfortably come together. The initial opposition of body types and personalities, as well as the nature of Varda’s comparatively more prominent popular appeal, isn’t on the viewer alone, however; the film itself recognizes and exploits the incongruities, only to then draw attention to how charmingly effortless their chemistry turns out to be, and why that makes for such an insightful, delightful documentary.
After having some fun with the notion that fortune brought the two of them together (following a series of near-misses, at bakeries and on the dance floor), Varda and JR join forces for a most unorthodox creative venture. They know of each other’s prior work and decide they will, in his words, “make images, together, but differently.” To do that, the two travel the French countryside in his van-turned-mobile-photo-booth, visiting small towns, taking pictures of the citizenry (hence the film’s more geographically-specific French title: Visages Villages), printing out the portraits, sections at a time, and pasting massive photo-sheets on assorted regional structures, like walls, barns, water towers, etc. It’s a way to quite literally put a face to the respective community, and as Varda declares, “each face tells a story.”
Most of these stories revolve around blue-collar workers, salt of the earth types who are directly impacted by an ever-encroaching modernity (a key refrain for much of Varda’s documentary work). One local farmer, for example, is grateful for the convenience of innovative machinery, but he sees the anti-social consequences: he no longer needs a whole team; one elaborate tractor will do. It’s about attaining balance, and as seen when Varda and JR visit a Le Havre port, it’s about coming to terms with working-class strife (strikes and unionization). It’s also about the emerging place of women in such industries. Though the intrepid Faces Places duo take time to chat with the wives of three port employees, all of whom also work for a living, only one, a truck driver, gets her own cutaway on the job, presumably for the lingering novelty of a woman behind the wheel of a big-rig (which is a curious focus on Varda’s part, given it’s a feminist step taken long before this particular motorist). Other individuals receiving due spotlight include a bell ringer, presenting his deafening orchestration with tremendous aplomb, and a large assembly of factory workers, coming in all ages, races, and sexes, but exhibiting a notable solidarity, which Varda and JR capitalize on for their corresponding portrait.
Overall, and it’s somewhat surprising (which is tragic), everyone encountered, and subsequently employed in this photographic quest, greets the two artists with a warm welcome, eager willingness, and a resounding decency. Though one young woman is a little on the shy side and is taken aback when people start snapping pictures of her massive likeness, most of the interactions are pleasantly candid and genuine, with big smiles and emotional responses to the larger-than-life reproductions — when filmed from a distance, with a full picture of their peripheral setting, these murals are truly striking in their discordant scale.
Some of the chatter between Varda and JR is obviously scripted, but most of that is reserved for momentary musing or for passages that move Faces Places forward, not along any narrative path, but to set up one theme or another. Frequently shot from the back, against some sort of scenic tableau, the two reflect on a number of existential concerns, the primary one — the one most often voiced and the one emblematic in JR’s executed photographic form — being that of impermanence. Subject to time and elemental wear, his “ephemeral images” are not meant to last, an inevitable weakness paralleled in Varda’s deteriorating physical condition: she suffers (rather cheerily) from an eye disease depleting her vision. Furthermore, the fallibility of memory, for which photography is one partial remedy, is also affectionately considered as Varda recalls a former acquaintance, Guy Bourdin, who was, fittingly enough, a photographer. Prior to the realization of his portrait on an abandoned World War II bunker, a relic from the past, left stranded on a Normandy beach and battered by the sea, Varda confesses she remembers a picture she took of her friend better than she remembers the man himself.
If there’s a third main character in Faces Places, it’s Varda’s fellow New Waver, Jean-Luc Godard. Though never seen or heard in the film, his recurring presence is felt throughout: JR’s insistence on constantly wearing dark sunglasses, which reminds Varda of Godard’s own pretentious preference; a wheelchair riff on the famous Louvre run from Godard’s Bande à part (1964); and clips from Varda’s 1961 short, Les fiancés du pont Mac Donald ou (Méfiez-vous des lunettes noires), featuring bright-eyed Jean-Luc and his then-muse Anna Karina. As a “solitary philosopher,” Varda praises Godard for creating a new cinema, for changing the medium itself. Nevertheless, when she surprises JR with a visit to Godard’s Swiss residence, the notoriously craggy auteur stands them up, adding insult to injury by leaving a cryptic message that alludes to Varda’s late husband, director Jacques Demy. Godard’s note rouses painful memories for Varda, so with her own written retort, she chides him for his poor hospitality, but ends her brusque reply with a heart — it’s hard to imagine Varda ever really staying mad at anyone.
And what of the ultimate end, where does Varda stand on the subject of death? She’s looking forward to it, she states, “Because that will be that.” The quiet, unobtrusive way in which these serious issues are seamlessly integrated into the film rests solely on the easy, self-effacing shoulders of Varda and JR. There is nothing forced about their shifts from artistic action to austere theorizing. Generally, Faces Places is at its best because of this spontaneity, something Varda says she is quite comfortable with (chance has been her “best assistant”). Setting off with no plan or fixed itinerary, this film of free-flowing happenstance combines the best of Varda’s naturalistic affection with the freedom of JR’s wide-open canvas.
Since its Cannes premiere earlier this year, much of the conversation concerning Faces Places has revolved around the prospect of it being Varda’s final film. It’s possible, given her age though certainly not her enduring avant-garde ambitions. And if that is to be the case, there could scarcely be a finer film to conclude the Belgian director’s justly lauded career. She doesn’t do it alone, though. The relationship between Varda and JR is one of infectious, effusive lightness, alive with comedy and camaraderie. They joke about meeting on a dating site, they join in an Anita Ward sing-a-long, and they take a special glee in pasting up the hilariously incongruous portrait of a solitary goat. With their idiosyncratic manners, her multi-colored bowl of hair, and his permanent shades and black hat, the two often appear as carefully crafted characters, affected personalities with marketable personas (complete with their own unofficial costume), but that’s just the surface, and Faces Places goes deeper than that. It unfolds at a supremely casual pace, harmonious and elegiac, sincere and poignant, and any artsy pretense quickly subsides, revealing the thoughtful purpose behind this joint endeavor, and resulting in one of the year’s best documentaries.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.