Faces Places sounds weirdly like exactly the sort of documentary that I would normally be averse to. On the surface of it is just a couple of artists trying to document their artistic project. Which is hardly a terrible concept (though still sounding self-congratulatory), especially when you see how it affects the witness to that art (which is obviously also documented) and they’re all emotional and receiving the nice and warm fuzzies from the way in which they are artistically immortalized: the artists in question take photos of their face, print them into blowouts, and paste them against large flat surfaces that usually mean a lot to the person whose face it is showing up in (not entirely immortalized, one of the artists mentions that the pastings have a finite lifespan and there is a scene where one of their works ends up not lasting until the next morning). But it’s something that I’d much rather experience or witness on my own, like most fine art. You can’t really get the full power of the work from watching a movie about it, frankly*.
The way Faces Places gets to circumvent around this for me is the fact that it is the latest film by French New Wave legend Agnès Varda, one of the brains behind this artistic project, the other one being photographer and graffiti artist JR, who Varda shares credit with. This sharing of credit is not for anything: JR and Varda remark early on about how it took them so long to meet each other (after a hilarious and disarming montage of “what if?” scenarios behind their fateful meeting – the one that brings the biggest smile to my face is the quaint little comedy about JR wanting to buy chocolate éclairs and losing them to Varda), having long had admiration for each others work, and sharing wonderful chemistry together as dear friends and as collaborators. They are of similar spirit and soul – socially conscious, approachable, curious, extremely stylish and photogenic in an unassuming way. Indeed, the charm behind Varda’s presence was definitely the first reason this movie was on my radar. I did not expect Faces Places would have the lovely opportunity to introduce me to another personality that would make for a charismatic screen companion to her and now I’m totally following JR for the rest of his career.
If Varda gets to take over on the cinematic front, JR is the specialist in the form of flyposting murals as art (both are photographers) and he seems so much more confident in performing the labor and verbalizing the project and ideas to any subjects that would like to be photographed. Varda however proves to be just as creative in ideas for this new medium as she did in cinema back in the 50s and 60s, especially since many of the areas they visit and work in have some memorial attachment to Varda. There is one point where they discuss Varda’s past relationship with the late photographer Guy Bourdin (who modeled for Varda) and it becomes the basis of an attempted tribute to his memory. This particular flypost is also the one that seems most collaborative at heart for Varda and JR, both of whom have a particular history with the area of the Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer beach of Normandy. JR, for instance, is the one who discovers the fallen German bunker where they perform the tribute.
Another thing that makes Faces Places‘ status as an Agnès Varda project much more attractive to me is how, like Varda’s most notable works of the 21st Century The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnès, it functions as autobiography and reflection of her current age. Constantly, Varda can not help but remark and sometimes interpret otherwise harmless statements by JR as commentary on the fact that she is 88 years old and losing her sight. Which is probably what makes her so eager to immortalize several people by this project, her coming knowledge that nobody in this world will last and that it’s important to leave a big imprint.
And certainly the director of La Pointe-Courte would know better than anybody else how everyone has their story in the world and they’re equally as important as the latest Star Wars picture. With each stop, we are privy to the lives and history of the area we watch transform before us – a row of abandoned houses left to decay before being brought to life by the neighboring community in a festive celebration. An industrial plant given a mural within a trench illuminating the hard teamwork and collaboration of two different shifts that otherwise don’t really interact. Three women working the docks of Le Havre being able to tower over the men in their field by stacks of shipping containers, before eventually sitting in the spot that their own hearts would inhabit. We meet these faces and learn what the interior lives behind these faces are. The visual results of Varda and JR’s work are wonderfully modern and moving, looking like splashes on a usually dull concrete surfaces despite only being in newspaper blacks and whites and greys.
In any case, that project is once again only what Faces Places appears to be in the surface and as we watch JR’s wonderful SLR-camera-looking van drive down the road to affable music by Matthieu “M” Chedid, the more obviously it peels back to look at Agnès awareness that she can’t see or move the way she once did and what does that mean for her artwork. Which is why it’s extremely touching to see her interact with JR, who tries to respond to her bubbly statements and imaginations with his own bouncy and spontaneous postures and movements without seeming like a cartoon (during a late-in-the-film tribute to one of my favorite movie moments JR suddenly jumps up mid-run into a crazy perpendicular legs-up-in-the-air pose and I thought he was the coolest guy in the world for that).
JR may be the young person in the duo, but Varda’s still a child at heart and the real conflict seems to be how Varda knows her body isn’t going to be able to follow her soul. It’s the source of some amount of tension: particularly in the metaphorical usage of her eyesight and JR’s trademarked sunglasses that he’s never seen without and which Varda attempts to pester him into removing, while also reminding her of her friend and the only other living French New Wave titan Jean-Luc Godard. And all three of these things – her eyesight, his sunglasses, and Godard himself end up orbiting the content of the final third of Faces Places, combining together for an ending to their voyage that feels at first cruel and cold until JR decides to help Varda re-author it through his generosity into a moment of serenity between two good friends.
JR and Varda will certainly not last together as a pairing for longer than the end of this decade. It feels blunt but fair to recognize that Varda will probably not live much longer than the next 3 years. And yet the most powerful thing I can’t help leaving Faces Places with is the inability to picture one of them without the other – and I’ve been a long time fan of Varda’s without even knowing who the hell JR is – and the knowledge that even while I consider that maybe more than a few of their “storyline” in this documentary is “staged” (I’m just that distrustful of documentaries, especially documentaries by narrative filmmakers centering on themselves), few relationships in this world are probably as pure, artistically charged, and loving without being romantic as Varda and JR.
*NB Dec 2018: I have now been lucky to witness one of JR’s artworks in person. Bless up!