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FACES PLACES (2017) review

October 27, 2017

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written by: Agnès Varda and JR
produced by: Agnès Varda and JR
directed by: Agnès Varda and JR
rated: unrated
runtime: 89 min.
U.S. release date: October 17, 2017 – November 2, 2017 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)

 

Escapism is fun and necessary; it’s something that many often associate with cinema, but I’ve found what I yearn for in my film watching is enlightenment and illumination through introductions and connections. I was reminded of this while smiling through “Faces Places”, the latest film from Belgian-born auteur, Agnes Varda, a wonderful documentary wherein Varda herself is the subject, along with her traveling companion, French photographer/artist JR. Both of them invite us along on their travels around France as they reflect, laugh, philosophize and create art, while in turn making others feel important, valued and appreciated. I can’t think of a more worthy and wonderful gift, which is exactly what “Faces Places” is. 

What transpires in “Faces Places” can be described as a French road trip movie, but that’s too simplistic; it really doesn’t do the film justice but it’s a good place to start. It’s best to just experience it going in cold.

 

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At the beginning of the film, we quickly meet Varda and JR and if you’ve never seen them before or knew of them, it becomes clear how undeniably charming they are. The congenial pair each have their own distinctive look – JR is tall and skinny, always wearing a trilby hat and dark sunglasses, while the diminutive Varda adorns a white-and-vermillion two-tone bowl cut you can’t miss. The age gap between the two (she is 89 and he is 33) turns out to be an undeniably sweet aspect of their unlikely relationship. They chide each other and have fun, but they also have deep conversations, question and listen to each other with genuine wonder and admiration. Immediately, curiosity draws us to these two and their own curiosity for life keeps us engaged, making it easy for us to be their traveling companions.

Varda accompanies JR in his custom-made van as the two travel across the French countryside with the goal of meeting random people (faces) in select villages (places) they either decide on or roll into (which explains the French title of the film, “Visages Villages,” meaning “Faces Villages,”). Accompanied by JR’s crew, the two introduce themselves to whomever they meet and inevitably wind up either taking pictures of them or asking them to step inside the back of JR’s vehicle which is fashioned as a photo booth. Their picture is snapped and then a giant-sized picture of them is printed out of a slim opening on the van’s exterior wall.

 

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These large black-and-white images are then pasted on the side of buildings, barns, rail cars, homes or places of employment, for all to see. Each surface they are pasted onto offer a unique texture and the full figure or close-up images and the structure they are adhered to become one and, in turn, something new and different altogether. The pure fun of it all is not just in seeing who they will photo and what they do with each image, but also the varying responses from their subjects. Curious onlookers are intrigued, readied with their smartphones to post what they see to Facebook or Instagram and their subjects are either embarrassed, thrilled or overcome with emotion, upon seeing their own image stretched out as tall as a chimney.

One desolate village they stop at is home to a row of old homes that used to house miner’s decades ago. They’re all abandoned now except for one which is occupied by a lone woman named Jeanine, herself the surviving daughter of a miner. She is beside herself when she sees her portrait adorning the exterior of her home, standing outside with tears in her eyes, clutching her hands. As we see Jeanine internalize and reflect on what has occurred (and quite possibly considering a new perspective of who she is), it becomes clear the immeasurable offering Varda and JR are providing their subjects – a chance to be reminded of the impact each person has in the community, the world, they inhabit. It makes these quirky and unique art installations an act of beautiful encouragement.

Near Chateau Arnoux they visit a factory and take group pictures of workers that make up two different shifts, people who rarely see each other because of their work schedules. Their images eventually face each other on opposite sides of an outdoor corridor wall, providing a place for the employees to finally be together and as they walk through a location they always use they now see the smiling faces of themselves and their co-workers, changing their work environment completely.

The duo’s inspiring journey take them to locations where they can honor both the living and the dead.  They find a farmer who works his land with advanced machinery all by himself and plaster his full figure upon his barn wall for all to see. Later on, they happen upon another farmer, an owner of some sixty hornless goats. When Varda asks why they have no horns, the farmer states it’s so the aggressive animals don’t hurt themselves, something that doesn’t sit quite well with her. So, when they do stumble upon goats with horns, Varda and JR are inspired to proudly paste a giant image of the horned creature on the side of a silo, like a billboard response.

 

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As a surprise to Varda, JR takes her to the ports of Le Havre where they find a labyrinth of stacked shipping containers and dock workers that maintain them. Observing that the workers consist entirely of men, Varda tracks down three of the dock workers wives and decides to focus on who they are and what their stance is on their husband’s occupations. The result of this interaction is an enormous triptych piece pasted on the side of stacked containers in tribute of the women who stand beside their men.  Some of the pop-up installations the pair produce stem from Varda’s past, like the use of a photo she took long ago of a her friend Guy Bourdin, which finds the young French artist/fashion photographer overlooking a beach. Intrigued by the personal connection she has to her photo, JR decides to enlarge it and put it on an old concrete German bunker from World War II that once stood on a cliff and was found embedded on a beach. What eventually happens to the image on the beach leads to a poignant conversation between the two artists that is simply poetic.

In fact, after each installation Varda and JR can be seen discussing what they had just done – the meaning behind it and how it affected them and their subjects – as if to summarize their shared experience. It’s a way for them to review, critique and reflect and it’s a way for us to understand on a another level how their actions impact them both so deeply.

This can also be seen on two occasions when Varda asks JR to accompany her to visit friends deceased and disconnected. They visit the hidden graves of her friends, Henri Cartier-Bresson (another French photographer) and his wife Martine, as well as travel to Cherange, a village near Normandy, the place where writer Nathalie Sarraute lived, whom Varda dedicated her 1985 film “Vagabond” to. Acknowledging the dead is just as important to Varda as celebrating the lives of the people she and JR encounter. At each stop along their journey we learn a bit more about Varda and JR, making “Faces Places” much more meaningful than just a road movie.

 

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One of the most touching moments comes when Varda attempts to surprise JR, which finds the two taking a train ride to Switzerland to visit the home of fellow octogenarian and fellow French auteur, Jean-Luc Godard. Varda and Godard use to be close friends and although they’ve since grown apart, she still thinks the world of him even though he drives her nuts. The outcome of that visit leaves Varda in an emotional, vulnerable state and the way in which JR just listens to her and tries to comfort her is one of the best moments on film I’ve seen all year.

Again, what sets this film apart from your typical buddy or travelogue movie (and I do adore “The Trip” movies) is the endearing affection the two have for each other. She may tease him for never taking off his glasses and hat, but she can’t deny how much she enjoys his company. When she initiates a visit to see JR’s 100-year-old grandmother, it’s clear she’s as interested in his personal life as his artistic endeavors. What JR does with the close-up pictures of Varda’s feet and eyes may be fun and humorous, but it also helps Varda to see herself in a different manor as well and at her age it’s invigorating.

Having never seen an Agnès Varda film (yeah yeah, we all have our blindspots), I was told by a colleague that “Faces Places” would actually be a great introduction and gateway to Varda and her films. That couldn’t be more true. I found myself mesmerized by Varda’s expressive face, engaging personality and resilient attitude. Watching how JR treated and interacted with Varda made me recall how I used to enjoy spending time with my grandparents and their siblings and just listening to them talk, laugh and tell stories. I’m definitely interested in other works of art by both of them.

I thoroughly and absolutely enjoyed spending time with Varda and JR and only wish I was given more time with them. But, one of the many things “Faces Places” did for me, was to remind me to appreciate who and what is around me. To embrace who I am and what I can do to make life better for others, as well remind me of the healing and uniting power of art. This charming and poignant film is simply one of the best of the year.

 

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RATING: ****

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