(Faces Places, a charming, insightful documentary by 88 year old Agnès Varda has made several “Best of” lists in late 2017. The film is in limited release now…)
She is 88, he is 33. Shades of Hal Ashby’s 1971 classic Harold and Maude? Hardly, as theirs is a romance purely of the spirit. Who are they? The grande dame of the French New Wave herself, Agnès Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7), and the rising-star photographer JR, founder of the Inside Out Project. Co-directors of this fabulous, ruminative, collaborative art project of a movie they have entitled Faces Places (“Visages, villages,” in French), they together travel through France engaging with ordinary people in various locales, photographing them and pasting their faces on local buildings, honoring the wonderful beauty of quotidian life.
Perhaps the greatest joy of this charming documentary, beyond that of seeing the happiness of the movie’s subjects, is the vibrant exchange of ideas between Varda and JR, over two generations apart. She ribs him for his ever-present sunglasses; he kids her about being out of touch; this joking aside, they evince enormous respect the one for the other. And always, there is an infectious playfulness they share, which pervades the entire movie, right from the start.
Though mostly observational, the movie includes staged moments, including the opening scenes where Varda and JR recreate their initial meeting (or, as they prefer, how they almost did not meet). From there, we journey the length of France, from Normandy to Provence, from beaches to farmlands to the grave of Henri Cartier-Bresson. When they are not on camera, themselves, they capture beautiful images from behind. Nothing is more striking, however, than the giant photographs they affix to homes, barns, bunkers and shipping containers; and not always of people – a lucky goat has his portrait proudly displayed, as well. Varda even sends her body parts traveling the country on the side of a train.
All in all, this is one of the most life-affirming documentaries I saw in 2017 (along with Kedi). At its best, art serves to illuminate profound truths about the world. Art that mines its profundities from among the seemingly mundane is especially precious. What better reward can there be than to be recognized for the hidden splendor within, especially if you didn’t even realize it was there? Faces Places delivers on its title, showcasing the best of both, and celebrating their union as one.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)