You don’t have to be familiar with Agnès Varda to appreciate Faces Places, her playful film that blurs the line between documentary and fiction. Like Jean-Luc Godard, Varda is one of the few French New Wave filmmakers who is still active well into her eighties. Her films are decidedly feminist, with a hyper-realistic approach to the inequities woman face. This film is like that, with the added complication that she co-directed the film with JR, a semi-anonymous French photographer who is fifty years her junior. Together they made a film that celebrates high art, dismantling the notion that it is only for the culturally sophisticated. The film is also about themselves, so the art takes on a personal dimension as JR and Varda narrate their collaboration.
The film begins with animation, setting the light-hearted mood of what’s to follow. Varda and JR could not look more different: she is short with a bizarre two-toned haircut, while JR is lithe and youthful. He also wears a fedora and sunglasses, never taking either off (much to Varda’s chagrin). Either way, they decide to make a film about JR’s long-term photo project. He has a giant truck, painted to look like a camera, and indeed acts as a giant Polaroid. He drives up to small French villages, asks if he can take the portrait of locals, then displays them publicly in eye-grabbing configurations. There is not much plot to Faces Places, and instead Varda/JR want to share their ideas with folks who are amused, then touched by their ambition.
The first photo project is the least ambitious, but also the most accessible. JR and Varda ask a bunch of folks to take a portrait with a baguette in their mouths. They connect the portraits together along a wall, creating the impression that everyone is sharing the same bread. It’s a fun idea, and yet there is a deeper purpose to it: JR and Varda wants to create a sense of community, that French people from all walks of life share similar values. This is the sort of thing that makes you nod in agreement, then smile at the good-natured vibes everyone exudes. As Faces Places continue, the photo projects only become more gargantuan. The most memorable involve shipping containers, and an abandoned Nazi bunker washed up on a Normandy beach. At every turn, JR and Varda involve locals in their work, to the point where they are not subjects but true collaborators.
Throughout Faces Places, Varda and JR comment on their hopes for the project. Varda is decidedly more open than JR, which suggests deeper reserves of confidence. In fact, all of JR’s affectations suggest an insecure, talented man who would rather be mysterious than understood. Still, the friendship between the two unlikely artists is welcome reprieve from movies where creators are removed from their work. Faces Places has a home-movie quality to it, and I mean that in a good way, since the feeling is inviting. Varda and JR include some references to French New Wave classics, even recreating the famous Louvre run from Godard’s Bande a Apart. This leads to Varda trying to get Godard on camera, with not the payoff you might expect. By mixing modernity with youthful exuberance, Faces Places makes the case that advanced age does not mean you must abandon fun, or passion.