Faces Places a Stunning Celebration of Humanity


Directed by Agnés Varda and JR
Cohen Media Group, 89 minutes, PG (in French with subtitles)

Faces Places will restore your faith in humanity and you won't need a word of French to fall in love with its humanity. On the surface it's little more than the documentary of a road trip between two improbable buddies and a choreographed one at that. But, oh, what a road trip and, oh, what buddies.

Our protagonists are 89-year-old Agnès Varda and 34-year-old JR, she a famed film director and he a photographer known for giant paste-ups that blur the lines between street art, graffiti, and vandalism. If Varda's name doesn't rings bells, it's because you've seen too many "movies" and not enough "cinema." Varda is, simply, one of the most important filmmakers of all time, a diminutive giant of the French New Wave (1950s/60s) that made film into an art form. One utters her name in the same breath as icons such as Chabrol, Goddard, Rohmer, and Truffaut. She is to France what Bergman is to Sweden, Kurosawa to Japan, Fellini to Italy, or Orson Welles to the USA.

But now she's old, visually impaired, and museful of her mortality. She's also whip smart, opinionated, independent, and fearless. One sees that in her face, through her milky eyes, senses it in her bold concepts, and her quirkiness is perched upon her head: a whimsical crown of gray fringed by a copper dye job.  By conventional logic she should be puttering about by herself, not cavorting about the French countryside with a fedora- hatted hipster who never removes his dark sunglasses. Luckily, JR is also unconventional in all the right ways. We too often think of street artists as furtive renegades who live in shadows darker than JR's sunglasses (like Banksy), or as urban-toughened daredevils harboring antisocial values. JR, though, has a soft side: he loves the elderly, works with a stable team, welcomes opposing points of view, and has warm regard for his fellow creatures.

Faces Places is exactly as advertised—an investigation of stories etched on faces in the villages where prosaic dramas unfold. Varda and JR hit the road in his remarkable van, the back of which is an instant photo booth that, instead of spitting out strips of tiny head shots, disgorges large-size grey-tone images on thin paper from a slot on the right side of the vehicle. JR and his team then stitch together a series of these to make enormous assemblages that they paste circus-poster style onto the sides of buildings, factories, ruins, train cars—even shipping crates. He and Varda pursue a simple-but-noble goal: find ordinary people and honor them through public display. They don't waste time with the upwardly mobile, pretentious, or haute bourgeoisie; their subjects are farmers, postal carriers, factory workers, waitresses, village folk, and those living on the margins.

I was hooked from the opening credits, which rolled against a delightful backdrop of animated sketches, and began to feast from the first project: a drive into a small town where JR distributed baguettes to the locals, filmed individuals chomping into the bread, and then strung the images together for what might be the world's longest baguette! I was enthralled by a three-story poster of a postman—and what's more French than that?—complete with shutters and doors that open through the picture.

This is the sort of film, though, in which every viewer will be moved by different images. Two that resonated with me emotionally were of women. In the first of these, Varda and JR landed in a played out coal mining town where they found a block of homes scheduled for demolition. In the midst of these, they located an older woman who was the last resident of the street. They filmed her, enlarged her face, pasted it to the side of her home, and slathered the rest of the block with oversized archival images of village work scenes and long ago mine families. When she viewed it, she was so overcome that her speechless tears shouted out, "At last! Someone who understands."

I was also moved by the only non-village trip: to the shipping port of Le Havre, where the two talked to unionized dockworkers, most of them men whose fathers and grandfathers worked on the docks. Varda, though a supporter of the unions, sought out three women to photograph—with enthusiastic support from the men, by the way. She and JR created three monumental full-bodied portraits that were pasted onto veritable skyscrapers of stacked cargo containers. Varda then had each woman lifted into an open container approximately where the heart would be located in the surrounding illustration and each spoke of what she felt. Yeah—Varda has that kind of vision.

Everything in this film delights and astonishes. Sure, some of it is staged, but if ever a film has its heart in the right place, it's this one. Would that more of today's directors had an ounce of Varda's vision. Would that more of today's aging folks (ahem!) had more of JR's empathy.

Rob Weir

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