Faces Places March 19, 2018
1 Hr., 29 Mins.
ou do not have to be familiar with the filmmaker Agnès Varda or the photographer JR to enjoy the Oscar-nominated Faces Places (2017), a delightful documentary they co-directed. If you are, though, you’ll likely savor it even more. Cinephiles recognize Varda as one of the pioneers of the influential French New Wave film movement of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Art lovers know JR as the mysterious, permanently bespectacled photographer and Instagram sensation famous for pasting his snapshots on building walls and city monuments as if they were murals.
Initially, the twosome, who also stars in the film, seems to be an odd pair. Their respective artistic styles contrast pronouncedly, and their 55-year age gap is prominent. But as the 89-minute Faces Places unrolls, we find that this was an artistic partnership made in heaven. We wonder how cinema might have looked if JR had been born a few decades earlier, if Varda were a handful of decades younger.
Faces Places is arguably the most accessible work either has made to date. It is vulnerable and intimate in the ways other JR pieces are not, and is inviting in ways Varda’s movies rarely are. The feature follows the dyad as they embark on an art project that will ultimately take a year and a half to complete. As introduced in the film’s first few minutes, Varda and JR, who had only just met before production began, intend to travel to an assortment of French villages and small towns, meet their inhabitants, and take photographs of the most key community members. Once the photos are taken and developed, the collaborators will blow the portraits up in JR’s usual style, plaster them on region-defining landmarks, and move on.
At first, Varda and JR’s intentions seem unrealistic and toilsome, susceptible to poor reception. But as we watch them waft through these sleepy villages and get to know an array of middle-class earth-shakers, the film proves to be remarkably meaningful.
It is immediately apparent that the artistic gesture is significant to many of these small-town people. For those who get the chance to see their facsimiles turned into a gawked-at spectacles, the undertaking serves as recognition for their years of hard work, a statement that helps underline their love for their community. The movie also underscores that, in even the tiniest of a locale, everyone is vital to the work of art that is a microscopic town.
Faces Places is exceptionally optimistic and curious, a looking-forward type of film that emphasizes the beauty of everyday people, unique communities, and discovery. But it is poignant, too. Varda has alluded to the fact that this will likely be the last movie she will ever make, and this is especially heartrending since it’s clear that she is just as energetic and inquisitive of a filmmaker as she was at the apex of her career. And we’re very much aware of the ephemerality of her and JR’s friendship: they’ve only just discovered that they are artistic soulmates, but they will likely only get to bask in the glory of their partnership for a few more years.
But all this adds to the film’s mastery and multidimensionality. What at first seems to be the cinematic counterpart of something you’d see on a travel channel ends up becoming an emotionally complex, effortlessly moving story of unlikely friendship and exploration. Maybe Faces Places will be Varda and JR’s one and only team-up. But that won’t stop me from wanting more. A