Film Review: Faces Places (2017)
Film Director: Agnes Varda & JR
Review by Belle McIntyre
At the risk of sounding too gushy and hyperbolic, I have to say, this film is a gift and a delight to have and to hold. It is the irresistible love child of two thoroughly fascinating, wildly creative artists from such unlikely backgrounds it defies logic on the surface. The iconic Agnes Varda at age 89 is one of France’s most revered and prolific filmmakers, who works in a documentary/realistic style with a focus on social and feminist issues.
She was influential on the French New Wave movement and was, in turn, influenced by the auteur theory and developed her own personal style. Her encounter with JR did not happen on a dance floor or some meet-cute scenario, but something profound must have happened when the octagenarian met the 33 year-old French street photographer JR. Thus was born the project Faces Places, a documentary of a road trip to envy.
JR, who uses only those initials, began as a graffiti artist. When he found a camera on a train during one of his stealth artistic forays he began to photograph his art. And thus began a new phase of his artistic expression, which evolved to a different style of public art. He began posting photos of his work on unrelated surfaces in public spaces. And then the work got larger and he began making billboard size images and pasting them onto building facades. His work is always socially engaged and his images are arrestingly realistic in black and white. Now that he is recognized and accepted he travels around in a van with an image of a camera covering the whole side. It is both a studio and a darkroom from which he can produce the monumental images which he pastes on whatever suitable surface he can find. His photographs are all portraits.
The idea is to document the people living in small villages in the French countryside which are typically under the radar screen but which have relevance to Varda from her life or her work. They travel in JR’s van and show up to each location with seemingly no advance agenda. The process appears to be totally organic. They scope out the place, talk to some local people, get a sense of it all and then it begins. It is in every sense a collaboration between the place, the people and the artists. And as alien as these two must seem to these folks, they never seem to ruffle feathers or feel invasive. And that is obviously on account of the evident open-heartedness and genuine curiosity on both sides. There is a high level of trust from the villagers, who seem to recognize that they are not being condescended to but rather they are being appreciated individually and celebrated and the work is left behind with them.
We meet all sorts of charming characters, including two goat farmers. One raises goats with no horns (they are removed at birth) so they cannot injure themselves in the course of normal goat behavior. The other one believes that “goats will be goats” and that is just part of goathood. No sides are taken. No judgements made. Portraits are pasted on barns and the fronts of houses. There are maritime workers in the port city of Marseilles, both men and women whose families have worked in the shipyards for generations. Their portraits are pasted onto the outsides of shipping containers where they will travel by train and sea until they wear off in a sort of finite memorial. JR puts Varda’s eyes on the side of a train tank car to spooky effect. As well as a surreal image of just her toes on another car. There is an element of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters to their journey (without the mind-altering substances).
It is something of a sentimental journey for Varda, who has much to reminisce about and is clearly aware of her limited time left and her weakening vision and she seems determined to pack as much into her remaining time as humanly possible including a visit to the reclusive Jean-Luc Godard, which seems the only sour note in a pretty wonderful journey. She seems to be passing along her legacy through JR as a conduit.
They are lucky to have found each other. And we are all the better for having been invited along on this magical mystery tour.
It is such a powerful antidote to our current toxic environment and a reminder that there are alternative ways of perceiving and reacting to our world. It is possible to be embracing, accepting, open-minded and grateful. I left the theatre feeling immensely uplifted and the sensation has remained with me. I hope that it lasts.