Thursday, May 17, 2018

"Faces Places" is Off to the Races

It has been a very, very long time since the last Agnes Varda film, "Beaches of Agnes," which was announced at the time to be her swan song.  So when I heard that she was coming back for another documentary, I knew I had to see it. Like several of her other later films, "Faces Places" turns the camera on 88 year-old Varda herself, along with her co-director JR, a 33 year-old photographer and street artist.  The pair reportedly liked each other's work, and decided to embark on this movie together.

Most of the film is taken up with our duo travelling about the French countryside in JR's van, a whimsical mobile photo booth that has been painted to look like a giant SLR camera.  They engage in the creation of several art projects together, mostly involving taking photos, enlarging them, and then using these to make gigantic murals on blank walls or other empty spaces.  At their first stop they put giant pictures of miners all over a neighborhood in a former mining town, sparking discussions and remembrances. At another, they blow up a picture of a farmer and place him on an empty barn, overseeing the fields that he works.  With every project, they do their best to involve the locals, both as subjects and as contributors of commentary and criticism. Varda remarks at one point that the best part of making the film was getting to meet all these people - factory workers, dock workers, cheesemakers, and plenty of others.

After several of these mural projects, they get to be a little repetitive, but this isn't all the film has up its sleeve.  There's also a meta-narrative interwoven throughout "Faces Places" about Varda and JR's developing friendship. They start off the film with a series of fake scenarios of when they first met - at a bus stop, at a bakery, or most amusingly, at a dance club.  We see the pair having conversations on various public benches. They talk about getting old, about their careers, and how JR never takes off his sunglasses, like Varda's old friend Jean-Luc Godard. JR accompanies Varda to the optometrist, to see about her blurring vision.  Varda pays a visit to JR's grandmother to ask about his childhood. Most of these vignettes are clearly staged, but others leave room for doubt. There's a particularly touching moment at the climax, where the scenario may be fake, but Varda's emotional reaction to it clearly isn't.    

There are some absolutely breathtaking images here, and the whole film is brimming over with creativity, inspiration, and artistic provocation.  I want to describe some of my favorite scenes, including an absolutely glorious Jean-Luc Godard tribute, but they're much better left for the viewer to discover for maximum impact.  The odd couple pairing of the grandmotherly Agnes Varda and the fleet-footed JR is a lot of fun, especially the different ways that they are able to approach people, and what happens when they're at odds.  I want to stress that this disagreement is brief, and very cordial. Unlike most of the heavy, serious documentaries I've been watching lately, "Faces Places" is such a lark. Varda and JR have no message to push but the joy of creating art and the excitement of exploration.  Their energies, even if Varda needs to rest often, are infectious and invigorating.

And there are moments of poignancy too.  While the film touches on JR's background briefly, much more time is devoted to Varda returning to bits of her past, as she did in "Beaches of Agnes."  Visits to a former model's house, to a cemetery, and to the home of an old friend prompt occasionally painful reminiscences. There's no getting away from Varda's sadness at the loss of so many important collaborators and friends over the course of her long career, and "Faces Places" takes the time to deal with this directly.  It all leads up to a delightful final shot that reminds the audience that however much Varda likes to share personal moments with her viewers, there are many parts of her life and relationships that will always remain a mystery.

Finally, I wish we could have gotten an epilogue of some sort with JR and his Varda standee at the Oscar luncheon, which was just too perfect for words.            


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