By Zachary Sheridan
Directed by Agnés Varda and JR
Agnés Varda, 89-years-old, is an incredible filmmaker who is known as the ‘Grandmother of the French New Wave’ movement in cinema. JR, 34-years-old, is an artist who takes pictures of people and then pastes them, large-scale, in various environments.
You can find JR’s work here: http://www.jr-art.net/
And read about Varda here: https://www.criterion.com/explore/178-agnes-varda
In Faces Places the seemingly unlikely but actually perfect duo team up to journey throughout France. They meet people, share stories, and then plaster the giant portrait posters of these people in unexpected places.
This is a joyous, wonderful film. Varda’s main goal is to get JR, who sports a constant hat-and-sunnies combination ala Jean-Luc Goddard, to remove his sunglasses so that she can see his face. Whether this transpires or not, you’ll have to go and watch – but it is interesting that a person whose life revolves on other people’s faces refuses to share his own.
Otherwise, their shared mission is to make people seen. Early in the film, a woman who has lived and worked hard in a miners’ town all during her life, comes to tears when she exits her house only to look back and see her stoic profile fastened to her abode. Later, at a dockyard, three women – partners of dockworkers – are honoured when images of them, standing tall, are stuck to shipping containers stacked upon one another that tower hundreds of metres in the air.
JR and Varda’s work is a celebration of people, an acknowledgement of their existence, an understanding that every person has their own story – and that each story is as real as the next.
At one point a character they meet remarks that art is supposed to be surprising. And the film mirrors that by being constantly surprising. Varda and JR have cut the film together in such a way that not only is each frame an artwork in its own right – what comes to mind is the pair on chairs on a beach while sand and stormy sea swirls around them (it’s like out of a dream) – but also striking and unexpected. At one moment we see JR take a photo of Varda’s toes – the next we find them printed big and wrapped around the carriage of a train, ready to tread around the world to all the places Varda herself may not see. Because beyond the touching, immediate and funny relationships they share with others they encounter, is the electric and endearing friendship between JR and Varda which threads through the film via conversations, about art, life, JR’s sunnies, and also death.
Reading about Varda’s other films – which I have unfortunately not yet seen but must watch after this experience – there seems to be a trend revolving on subjects grappling with their mortality. It’s interesting then that Varda herself continues to remark about not having much time left all through Faces Places. The ephemeral nature of existence is continually brought to the surface, through dialogue, the juxtaposition of images (photos taken of people by the same beach shack more than 50 years apart is both jarring and inspiring), and it is also echoed in JR’s impermanent work. This is most obvious when one of the artworks is dramatically washed away overnight.
In this way, the film serves as a reminder to live. When life becomes overwhelming, Faces Places provides a necessary pause for reflection and connection. The film’s opening where JR and Varda describe all the ways in which they did not meet – at the bus stop, in the bakery, at a rave, etc. – is example of the accidental nature of things, the energising notion that it is chance that frames our lives.
These ideas presented by JR and Varda are supplemented by delightful design (Oerd Van Cuijlenborg’s illustrations are a highlight) and Matthew Chedid’s poignant original music.
The only drawback being a weird tangent concerning goats and horn-removal. I would have rather they left the goats alone (both in the film and in real life), and used the time for the audience to meet JR’s team – a huge part of his practice rarely referred to in the film.
But perhaps it was more important to focus on JR and Varda’s world. They have unique outlooks, for sure, but ones worth empathising with. Because if we can connect with their world view, just for a moment, maybe a little more joyfulness will flood our lives.