Agnès Varda’s first film in nine years is, like 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès, rooted in her past, while also addressing her finite future. Faces Places is a stylized road movie co-directed with JR, a pseudonymous Parisian street artist, but the echoes of Varda’s French New Wave origins ripple across the journey.
The 33-year-old JR, as the 88-year-old Varda’s voice-over narration recognizes in the movie’s preamble, is a dead ringer for a young Jean-Luc Godard: a renegade hipster perpetually hidden under dark sunglasses. By the end, Varda’s memories of Godard will blur — literally, on account of Varda’s fading vision — into JR’s friendlier visage. The New Wave may be long dead, but if Faces Places shows us anything, it’s that art’s ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary is very much alive.
JR, whose work was unknown to me prior to this screening, is a prizewinning artist — one of countless upstarts dubbed the “Cartier-Bresson of the 21st century” — who travels Europe in a mobile studio, photographing people and printing out large-scale black-and-white photos on the spot, which he then pastes onto public structures for maximum wit, provocation or pathos. Faces Places finds JR and Varda traversing the French countryside in the former’s camera truck, searching for subjects. The freedom of the unknown drives the film’s invigorating narrative; as Varda says, “Chance has always been my best assistant.”
This conceit brings the visual artist and filmmaker into the belly of working-class France, whose subjects are explored, and then photographed and displayed, with boundless curiosity. Among their encounters are the last remaining resident of a housing development for miners, who shares anecdotes of her family history in a profession that’s been eliminated; the sole harvester of 2,000 acres of farmland, who provides insights into the technology of industrialization and the solitude of his calling; a bell ringer at a church tower who proudly shows off his consonant craft; and a breeder of hornless goats, whose mechanized dairy farm is juxtaposed with another local goat farmer with a free-range approach to milk extraction. They interview the only female big-rig driver in a trucking company of 80 employees, whose singularity must have appealed to Varda, the only female auteur of the New Wave.
Along the way, JR plasters images of these accommodating residents on everything from a tower of shipping crates to a World War II-era bunker jutting from a beachfront. Invariably, the communities they enter become enriched by their presence. The word “inspiring” is fatally overused in the promotion of movies, but there’s no better superlative to describe the reaction of the entire workforce of a salt factory, whose group portrait under JR’s lens enforces a new sense of unity among the employees. Or that mining descendant, whose speechlessness at her giant portrait soon yields to tears. Or the explosion of visitors to an otherwise abandoned town that Varda and JR, by their talent and imagination, spruce to life, if only for a day. Faces Places is an absolute, life-affirming joy to watch.
The subtext, however, is that death is unavoidable, a contrast the directors deftly balance. Their project is routinely interrupted by reminders of Varda’s mortality, from a graphic eye procedure that briefly puts the journey on hold — and which Varda allows JR to film — to her limited ability to climb stairs and general sense of resignation. “Everyone I meet feels like the last one,” she says, in a typically naked acknowledgement of her twilight. And this is before they visit the grave of Henri-Cartier Bresson, which generates sober reflection.
But the cinema is its own immortality, persisting in Varda’s memory, helping her accept the inevitable. She is subjected to regular injections into her eyes, but she’s unafraid of the needle because of the iconic razor-blade shot in Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Later, during a detour at the Louvre, she lets JR wheel her through the galleries at top speed, in homage to Godard’s Band of Outsiders. Godard isn’t dead yet, but JR seems somehow to be his reincarnation. People change, but the movies live forever.
FACES PLACES (VISAGES VILLAGES). Directors: Agnès Varda and JR; Distributor: Cohen Media; in French with English subtitles; Opens: Friday at Lake Worth Playhouse and the Tower Theater in Miami