Agnès Varda and JR are in the news once more. Earlier this month, the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences acknowledged Varda’s achievements in cinema by giving her an honorary Oscar. JR’s startling mural of a little boy peering over the border in Tecate, Mexico made a splash in the media. Having recently caught the public’s eye, for both artists the timing couldn’t be any better for the release of their new film, Faces Places (2017), which will screen at this year’s New York Film Festival.
Faces Places is a kind of road movie in which a 34-year-old artist and an 88-year-old one stop at villages to talk to and take photos of people in the French provinces. The film is a collaboration between Varda and JR, and the people they interact with throughout the film. An odd couple, JR and Varda are electric on screen. The former is the high-spirited, photogenic, and media-savvy front man while the other grounds the film.
Faces Places begins with JR and Varda trying to get to know one another. After an animated title sequence, the film presents a series of first encounters that didn’t in fact actually happen — such as the duo meeting at a bus stop. Shortly thereafter, JR and Varda sit at her kitchen table at her home on rue Daguerre in Paris. They’re brainstorming on what the film we’re watching is supposed to be. This puckishness and playfulness happens throughout the film. In one town they visit, a mailman delivers a literal letter. And in another delectable moment, Varda sings along to Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.”
As Varda and JR travel in his van, designed and shaped like a giant camera on wheels, the two visit Normandy, Le Havre, and more. They talk to and create murals of dockworkers, dockworkers’ wives, miners, farmers, bell ringers, and more. Judiciously, the filmmakers include one interview with a subject of one of JR’s giant murals who is a bit uncomfortable with their project, since everyone knows her online now, and associates her with the village she lives in.
At times, Faces Places turns towards JR, who is characteristically reluctant to talk about himself. And at other times, the film’s focus shifts to Varda, who adds a tinge of mortality to the proceedings. JR asks, for instance, if she’s afraid of death and she replies, “I’m looking forward to it.”
Varda’s memories become entangled with the faces and places that she encounters as well. A trip to various goat farms recalls a photo Varda took back in 1954 with a man and a boy, both naked, standing on a seashore next to a dead goat. With his crew, JR pastes a mural of a young Guy Bourdin — at one time Varda’s friend — on a World War II concrete bunker. He’s “like a child in a cradle” Varda says, reflecting on the image. A running narrative strand concerns the spectral presence of Jean-Luc Godard, particularly in the way JR dresses (like JLG, never once does he take off his sun glasses) and in one scene, a comical homage to the Louvre scene in the 1964 film Band of Outsiders .
Faces Places is a gentle, light, and airy film. Everything that you would expect in a Varda film is there: a subjective and hyper-aware interest in and collaboration with the working class; the familiar imagery of potatoes, faces, and the sea. However, the film feels slight. The many excursions are too brief, too cursory for long consideration. A sketch compared to The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), Faces Places is a palatable, easily digestible film that is as ephemeral as the murals showcased in it.