Faces Places

 

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A shared endeavour that nevertheless stands with Agnès Varda’s most personal work.

 
Faces Places 

JR and Agnès Varda

 

The films with which Agnès Varda made her name in the 1960s (Cleo from 5 to 7, Le Bonheur) featured actors but even in those days she would also make documentaries, at first shorts but later also features. In more recent times, documentaries have come even more to the fore for her and in old age (she is now 89) they define the late stage of her work. The feature that stood out as defining just what Varda could achieve in this field was her 2000 feature The Gleaners and I. It was a freewheeling and utterly personal piece in which she travelled around France talking to various individuals who could be considered gleaners (the term was applied loosely) while at the same time looking frankly at her own situation and at what aging was doing to her body.

 

On paper, Faces Places (known in France under the more specific title Visages Villages) might sound like a very different proposition. True, she is again travelling around France but now she is in the company of the photographer and muralist JR in a truck that also functions as a giant camera to take pictures of people they meet. These pictures will then be blown up to poster size and exhibited on the walls of buildings. But, if that makes Faces Places a study of JR’s art, that is only half of the story. These two may share the directorial credit but their joint enterprise emerges as the best expression of what makes Varda totally herself since The Gleaners and I. JR may only be in his thirties but the rapport these two develop is born of comparable attitudes and shared artistic instincts.

 

Also central to this film are the people they meet and to whom they talk on camera before JR takes his photographs. Varda, now that much older and with blurry eyesight, continues to reveal the effects of aging honestly but that only serves to make all the more admirable the spirit that drives her. We may witness her old age but her curiosity about people is undimmed and what she feels is conveyed not just by the woman we see on screen but by the outlook that emanates from what is recognisably the very essence, the core, of this picture’s character.

 

A brief scene in which the two of them visit JR’s surviving centenarian grandmother illustrates JR’s affectionate understanding of older women and so serves to explain why this collaborative effort functions so well. It’s also a film that is admirably edited with nothing going on for too long. However, the later stages move away from the various villages visited to the docks of Le Havre for a more consciously political set piece. More disconcertingly for those viewers who are not cineastes the film breaks away to focus on Jean-Luc Godard: a playful variation on a famous scene in his Bande à Part (1964) leads on to an intriguing but thwarted attempt to visit the great man. It doesn’t quite fit in with what has gone before but for Varda enthusiasts - and, indeed, for anyone seeking an uplifting view of how it is possible to remain fully engaged with life when not far short of ninety - this is a film that demands to be seen.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Agnès Varda, JR.

 

Dir Agnès Varda and JR, Pro Rosalie Varda, Screenplay Agnès Varda and JR, Ph David Chaulier, Nicolas Guicheteau, Valentin Vignet, Romain Le Bonniec, Raphaël Minnesota and Roberto De Angelis, Ed Agnès Varda with Maxime Pozzi-Garcia, Music Matthieu Chedid.

 

Ciné Tamaris/Social Animals/Rouge International/ARTE France Cinéma/Arches Film/Unité Société et Culture d’Arte France/Canal+/Le Pacte-Curzon Artificial Eye.
94 mins. France/USA/Switzerland. 2017. Rel: 21 September 2018. Cert. 12A.