Directors: Agnès Varda and JR
MPAA Rating: (for brief nude images and thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:29
Release Date: 10/6/17 (limited); 10/27/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 26, 2017
Agnès Varda, the filmmaker, and JR, the photographer and artist, travel around France to discover new faces and see some familiar places in the aptly titled Faces Places. That's about it, except that JR and his team also create art from photographs of the people they meet. The team travels in a van with the image of a camera lens on the back. In the back of the van, there's a photo booth and a printer that creates large-scale photographs that come out the side of the van like an instant camera. With the photos made, the team cuts out the subjects and pastes the large pictures in segments on buildings and other structures. They won't last, but does anything?
In spite or because of its simplicity, this is a lovely film. Like any road trip worth anything of value, the film is unhurried and spontaneous, with only a minimal goal in a mind. Here, the goal is to create art. That's it.
The fun of the film is in briefly getting to know these random people, who live in rural areas or work in a factory or raise goats, and seeing their reactions to JR's creations. One woman, a waitress a small-town café, agrees to have her portrait taken in a nice dress and carrying a parasol. She didn't quite realize that her entire body would be plastered to the side of a building. She's slightly embarrassed that her photographed foot is bigger than her actual head, and she's even more distressed that the makeshift exhibit has become an internet sensation. She's rather critical of herself, but then Varda interviews the woman's son, who thinks his mother looks very pretty on the wall.
The film is made of these little moments. As impressive as it is to see JR and his team climb ladders and get into machines to do the work of pasting the photos, the creation itself isn't really the point. That comes before and after the process of creation, as Varda and JR interview the locals and talk to them about how they feel, seeing images of themselves or their neighbors transforming something to which they have become accustomed into a temporary work of art. A farmer is quite proud of an image of himself—his hands open and slightly outstretched at his waist—adorning his barn. Now, everyone will know it's his. He works about 2,000 acres of land on his own. It's lonely work, because computer technology has made a crew of farmers irrelevant.
A lot of change has happened since Varda has visited some of these places to make films or to visit friends and colleagues. There's a level of uncertainty in the faces and voices of the locals, such as the ones who inhabit a former mining town where there's no more mining to do. People eagerly tells stories and share photographs of themselves, their family members, and their friends who did that work. An entire section of houses is set for demolition, but one woman refuses to leave. After pasting those photos of the miners along the row of houses, Varda and JR offer the woman a parting gift: her own face, taking up the entire front of her house. She's speechless but on the verge of tears.
There's no structure to the film, except that Varda and JR, who wrote and directed the film, talk about the fact that they aren't certain how their film should be structured. It's mostly documentary, but it also features little vignettes of the two artists together—discussing where the film should go next, remembering the stops on their expedition, joking with each other, and talking about matters as weighty as mortality and as comparatively frivolous as the fact that JR always wears sunglasses. Varda hates that, because she wants to see his eyes. Her own are diminishing as she's getting older, and she, now 89 years old, says that she thinks every new person she meets will be her last.
There's a world of difference between these two, from their ages (JR is 34) to their general attitude. JR says Varda has ways of a "wise grandmother" at one point, and she says he has the manner of an energetic young man. There's a shared admiration and respect, though, as well as an opinion that art can and should be found anywhere and at any time.
JR gives her the gift of photographing her eyes, hands, and feet, pasting those images to trains that will travel to places she has never been. Varda wants him to meet her "long-time" friend (She scolds the young man for saying "old friend") Jean-Luc Godard. He wants to put a photo on an abandoned, fallen German bunker on a beach in Normandy, and she suggests one of a model, who later became a photographer himself, that she would use in her youth. He has since died, and so, too, have her other friends and her husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy.
All of this may be simple, but there's a lot to take in—from the interviews and reactions, to the personal information about these two artists (There's a stop to visit JR's 100-year-old grandmother that's genuinely touching), to the friendship that develops between Varda and JR along the way. The two make a good team, and Faces Places is a warm and engaging document of their partnership.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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