Faces Places (2017)

Directed by Agnes Varda, JR

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Faces Places is a documentary following two artists around the French countryside.  One of them is 88 year old Agnes Varda, one of the leading filmmakers of the French New Wave movement which dominated cinema in the 1950s and 60s.  The other is JR, a hip 33 year old photographer I know much less about but who has a very distinct Banksy vibe.

The two of them make an unlikely pair, and the film plays up their differences in an odd couple kind of way.  Though a documentary, much of Faces Places feels scripted, and I don’t think Varda or JR mind too much.  They are aware of themselves and certainly of the camera.  This is a story about two savvy artists who are playing with the medium itself as much as with the people they come across.

Their story involves roaming the countryside in a large van, ostensibly a road trip, though I don’t imagine they spent all their time in such a van, particularly Varda.  We only really ever see where they end up, the towns they pass through and the people they meet.  Though a road trip story, there isn’t much time spent with the two artists in the car other than a few establishing shots, filmed in such a way as to make it clear they were staged.

Or maybe they did drive all that way in the car, but the documentary is shot with a certain self-awareness.  Varda and JR consciously construct a story here, and it may sometimes feel a little too on the nose, but the message and the nature of the story is so damn fluffy and positive that it’s hard not to be taken with it.

The two of them agree that they like meeting new places in new faces.  They make their way to small towns and interact with the locals, taking their photos and thinking of new Banksy-esque displays to paste onto the world around them.  In one sequence they meet a woman who lives alone in a brick home, part of a neighborhood that used to belong to coal workers but which is now otherwise empty.  She insists she will never move despite the pressure put on her to abandon her home.  To honor her, JR takes her portrait and pastes it on her house.  She is moved to tears when she sees it, and I was a little bit too.

JR’s work takes center stage here.  Varda will interview the locals and take their photographs, but her influence likely came as part of the construction of the film itself.  What they do within this film lies mostly in JR’s skill set.  He is a visual artist who takes photographs and plasters them on natural, unconventional canvases.  Throughout Faces Places he will take many photographs, mostly portraits, and he’ll paste them on buildings, ruins, barns, brick walls and water towers.

The film celebrates people in general.  We hear from those who don’t otherwise have much of a voice, and these two artists take their time to honor these individuals, making them larger than life just by virtue of giving them a brief spotlight.

Through it all, though, Faces Places is about the friendship between Varda and JR.  The movie begins with them narrating how they did not meet, and they act out these scenarios of them crossing paths but never interacting.  In between their road trip stops, they will sit and have carefully constructed and blocked conversations about what they’ve seen.  Varda, we learn, has an eye disease that makes her field of vision occasionally blurry.  JR, meanwhile, never takes off his sunglasses, making everything darker than it needs to be, as he comments on.  It’s a quirk that bothers Varda who suggests that he should take them off, especially considering she got her old friend, famous director Jean-Luc Godard to remove his sunglasses for a short film she made.

So there’s a theme of vision and how we see the world.  It’s perhaps a bit heavy-handed, but it’s joyful and doesn’t detract much from the momentum of the story.  The film will end with JR asking to meat Varda’s famous friend, Godard, but when they arrive to his home he isn’t there and has only left a message alluding to their friendship and Varda’s deceased husband, Jacques Demy.  Seeing this message, Varda becomes emotional, and it’s so sudden that the whole thing feels a little too scripted (though it seems this was an actual occurrence).  JR suggests Godard’s refusal to see them is his own offering to the story.  By changing the story he is changing the script, forcing them to improvise.

The movie ends with Varda and JR at a bench by a lake.  To take her mind off things, JR finally takes off his sunglasses, and we see his face but with through an out of focus lens, meant to suggest Varda’s own perspective.  Again, I wasn’t as charmed by this narrative as I was with the people they genuinely encounter, but it’s a pleasant bookend to the story.

Actually, I suppose I was kind of charmed.  This scripted ending should feel like it’s a little too much, but looking back at the photograph above, I enjoyed the whole ride with these two characters.  I adore their chemistry and respect for each other, and their curiosity about the world around them is to be admired.  Faces Places is a heartwarming, intimate little story that doesn’t aspire to anything beyond its reach.  It wants to tell you about people and offer a glimpse into their lives, and it does just that.

Up Next: Dark City (1998), The Thing (1982), The Faculty (1998)

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