Film Review: Faces Places

Through art, Agnès Varda and JR commemorate the stories of ordinary individuals and joyfully celebrate the communities they form. The filmmakers start from an experimental, whimsical place and ultimately deliver a profound political statement.
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Some of cinema’s most joyous events are a result of seemingly odd pairings in leading roles. That tradition is alive and well in the buoyant Faces Places, which unites the petit, boisterous French New Wave legend Agnès Varda and the hip photography artist JR on a road trip in France, where the duo hit picturesque countryside towns and uncover the extraordinary details in seemingly ordinary lives through their joint lens. Varda is in her late 80s, JR in his mid-30s. They have a difference in height and in background. But what they vividly, enthusiastically share is a huge appetite for creating art and involving people in the process.

The disarming Faces Places inspires an urgent need to celebrate everyday life and dares to take its audience down a memory lane where photography wasn’t perishable, a la Snapchat. It’s a contemporary throwback to a time when images printed on photographic paper represented a sense of permanence, evidence of the immortality of a person’s footprint on Earth.

But that doesn’t mean Faces Places frowns upon modern-day technological habits. Far from it, actually. During the journey, expect to see people taking selfies when they are not in the duo’s state-of-the-art traveling photo booth, which captures and prints gigantic images of the various subjects the filmmakers decide to photograph and use as part of their communal art installation on the façades of houses, walls and other constructs. Along the way, Varda and JR involve everyonefrom farmers and theatre owners to artisans of all sortsin their delicate art-making. Their enormous photos sometimes observe and appreciate solitude: The photograph of a young café waitress in a lovely dress, for instance, finds her staring at the distance while holding a cheerfully colorful umbrella. At other times, they rejoice in connectivity and togetherness. In one elongated stretch of installation, JR posts individual, side-by-side photographs of people hold a French baguette in their mouth, creating the illusion of a long baguette shared by all. In one of the most touching segments of the film, another installation portrays a group of female truck drivers sitting on impossibly high crates. The photographs by themselves memorialize individuals and experiences. Together, they mean a great deal more, cherishing humankind’s interconnectedness through art.

In the scrappy yet compassionate tradition of Varda’s body of work, especially her more recent The Beaches of Agnès and The Gleaners and I, Faces Places witnesses and documents snippets of life unfolding all around us. At first glance, you might be inclined to think this is not much more than a happy, whimsical documentary that adds yet another impossible item to your bucket list (as in “Join Agnès Varda on a blissful road trip”). But when fully analyzed, Faces Places is a fierce political statement that challenges our times that reward individualism and isolation. This comes into sharp focus when Varda and JR decide to visit Varda’s old friend Jean-Luc Godard in Switzerland upon his invitation. But to Varda’s (and our) heartbreak, Godard is not to be found at home, where he had left only a cryptic message. They leave the scene (Varda’s sadness is all too real), but despite one broken link to an old friend, we know Varda’s world is far from isolated. The magic she and JR have summoned from communities, all of which have been touched and maybe even emotionally altered by the experience of crafting and creating together, still lingers and shines.

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