Documentary Review Special: Faces Places (2017 Agnès Varda and JR)

Faces Places (2017)
Directed by Agnès Varda and JR. Written by Agnès Varda (in French with subtitles)

If you don’t know who Agnès Varda is, then I would recommend you check out some of her movies. She turned 90 this year and has been making provocative and artistic films since the early 1950s. She was one of the main instigators of the French Nouvelle Vague and in later life, her curio-driven documentaries have been earning her many awards and delighting audiences around the world for their pure humanity. I remember the first time I crossed Ms Varda’s path whilst watching her fascinating documentary The Gleaners and I (1999). Back then, almost 20 years ago, she exuded a marvellous balance between wisdom and unwavering inquisitiveness (a fundamental trait that makes Varda’s films so watchable).

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The Gleaners and I (or Les glaneurs et la glaneuse in French) followed her around the French countryside as she met a range of people connected to the practice of gleaning – gathering/scavenging food and objects in order to survive and/or as a hobby. Sounds dull…but actually it is fascinating stuff, and at times Varda makes it emotionally powerful. Her commentary of the experiences she has with these people are cheerfully, but sometimes sorrowfully, communicated through the microphone at the back of the camera. Her observations often turn into a reflection of her own mortality (at one point she ruminates on her hand wrinkles), and this certainly provides for a very enlightening and absorbing experience. As much as Varda gives a channel for her characters (or interviewees) to speak through, her connection to them all, and thus our own connection, is veritably expressed. These characters enliven every page of the documentary and their range of personalities extend from hilarious to stubborn, from lovely to loathsome and from weird to even weirder.

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And this is where Faces Places takes its cue from where The Gleaners and I left off. It is 18 years later and Varda is out to track down more characters. She is now older but yet she exudes the same unmistakable energetic nature as she did in The Gleaners and I. She enlists a young upstart of an artist, named only as ‘JR’ and eternally wearing a pair of sunglasses, who helps her make another movie of inquiry into the French populace. Together they wander around the countryside looking for people to create black and white wall portraits of. JR has a truck that doubles up as a photo booth, and he and his team print out these massive posters of people who get their picture taken in it. They then paste them onto various quirky canvasses such as old buildings, trains and shipping containers. Varda’s task is essentially to reprise her role in The Gleaners and I and find interesting people to take pictures of, while the both of them then decide where best to position the posters. Again, sounds a bit dull and pointless. But it doesn’t end up that way.

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If JR was to be making this film on his own, it would probably be unwatchable. His pretentious, ‘mod-artist’ demeanour (and sometimes his behaviour) is wonderfully cut down to size by the inimitable and always-game Varda. Their chemistry together is not the Harold and Maude style love story (thankfully), but rather has a more charming ‘Grandmother and Grandson’ sense to it. Varda brings the best out of JR, and although it is noticeably played up for the cameras at times (her unfathomable quest to make him take off his sunglasses seems staged), there is a genuinely warm feeling between the two and they are always wanting to learn more about each other. JR communicates his modern ideas to Varda, while Varda herself cannot help but hold on to ideas that was conceived in the past – specifically in her heyday in the 1950s and 1960s when she and her late husband Jacques Demy used to hang out with Jean-Luc Godard. The nice thing is that there is always room for compromise and humour.

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As much as we have the ‘cartoonish’ creation of an ‘unlikely duo for the ages’ here, it must not be forgotten that the subject matter which both artists are trying to emphasise – the French people, or more macroscopically, the people of the world – is the central force binding the film together . There is a quaintness to the characters – a village postman, a waitress, a goat farmer, a widow of a mine worker who lives in the same townhouse she has for over 50 years. These are all down-to-earth, honest-to-goodness, unsung heroic folk who have a story or two to tell. The fact that Varda embraces their humanity is a cause for us all to empathise and revel in their exuding warmth. She even sometimes questions the seeming sterility of JR’s own back-story and manages to peek beneath the surface to find a deep humanity there too – when she arranges to meet his 102 year old grandmother, it is hard not to hold back the tears.

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Like The Gleaners and I, Faces Places is a meaningful and magnificent film. It simply takes on a life-affirming art project and puts two relatable characters (both liberal-minded, both curious, both innovative) front and centre in delivering it. Their age gap is broken down and you find something wonderful in their working relationship as well as their personal journey together. It is a fantastic documentary that should be experienced by all in these dark times. It helps us all reaffirm our thoughts that good humanity trumps bad humanity. The human spirit always has the ability to endear. The French language and the French countryside is a beautiful sound and visual background too. For Agnès Varda, this is yet another masterpiece to be added to her long and brilliant career. At 90, she deserves much more recognition than she actually gets.

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 4.5/5

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