A playful road movie that mixes documentary, philosophy and memoir, Faces Places (2017) takes you on a journey through rural France with two genuinely delightful people, filmmaker Agnès Varda (1928–2019) and street artist JR. The then 88-year-old Varda is a filmmaking legend, renowned for her unique style and connection to the French New Wave, while JR, then 33, emerged comparatively recently due to an expansive participatory project ‘Inside Out’ that involves creating, printing and presenting monumental images of people from all walks of life from communities across the globe. The two artists make an unlikely pair, but their differences highlight how similar they are at heart, particularly through their genuine interest in the lives and experiences of the people they meet.
The film opens with an animated title sequence that sets the mood for what is to follow, including a cheeky prologue where Varda and JR share each other’s credentials and set the scene for their collaboration. Their initial motivation is the fun they’ll have making a film together, while meeting and photographing people in the places or villages where they live. The pair set off in one of JR’s photo-booth trucks, a wacky contraption that takes a participant’s photo and then prints it in the form of a large black and white poster. The truck, which resembles a travelling camera, is comical and unintimidating, as is Varda and JR’s creative style. As Varda comments, “It’s like a game.” Individual photos of people holding a baguette are pasted up in a long line to create the illusion they are holding the same super-long baguette – a visual joke that also works as a metaphor for the connection between people that Varda and JR celebrate. By contrast, the independence of a farmer who works his 500 acres entirely on his own is signified by a huge photo portrait of him pasted on his barn. Three women working on the male-dominated docks of Le Havre have their images placed like totems on the sides of containers to take up their “place of honour”. Other pastings are more poignant, such as when the pair meet Jeanine, the only remaining resident in an otherwise deserted street in a former mining town, and mark her connection to place by pasting her image across the façade of her house. In an interview about Faces Places, Varda commented that through her and JR’s process, people became “heroes in their own lives and in their villages”.
JR and Varda also share fragments of their own stories and lives which includes a heartbreaking visit to Varda’s old friend Jean-Luc Godard who refuses to see her, and a much cheerier visit to JR’s very welcoming one hundred-year-old grandmother. Varda’s advanced years, memories and creative legacy are a constant presence in Faces Places, and much of the film’s beauty relates to the way it balances the energy of everyday experience within the present moment with the poignancy of recollecting and honouring the past.
– Susan Bye