Review: Faces Places (2017)
There’s a key moment late in Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places where Varda and JR go to meet Jean-Luc Godard and instead find a locked door and a cryptic quotation that reminds Varda of one of the most painful moments in her life. She fights back tears and curses Godard’s callousness, calling him a rat, before they leave and once again shift the tone of their work towards the sort of gooey artistry that we’ve experienced for 70 minutes or so. This moment is instructive in letting us know what kind of filmmaker Varda is, because although (like Godard) she is a significant member of the French New Wave, she is the opposite of Godard in terms of emotion and sympathy for the people around her.
Faces Places is the sort of celebration of ordinary people and casual decency that Godard would decry in writing and avoid in filmmaking. The octogenarian Varda and French photographer-muralist JR travel through rural France and put up giant portraits of people they meet along the way. For instance, they travel to a former mining town and discover a woman as the sole inhabitant of her block of old brick mining homes. They photograph her and transform the facade of her home into a massive portrait of her weathered face. When she comes outside and sees their work, she immediately starts crying, in many ways truly seeing herself for the first time.
If this description sounds moving, that’s because it is. Faces Places keeps up this emotional approach to ordinary people as Varda and JR travel the countryside and bond along the way. It’s a film for people who like old folks and who believe that average citizens ought to be treated with compassion and curiosity. It bears many of the characteristics of the French New Wave—a formal playfulness and tendency to self-reflexively narrate every single moment—without any of the cynicism that you’d associate with figures like Godard.
Is Faces Places a true documentary? It’s hard to say. In the film, Varda and JR wonder aloud whether Godard purposefully snubbed them to force a bittersweet climax to their film. The presence of such a self-reflexive statement on film structure forces us to evaluate whether all of Faces Places is a calculated work of manipulation.
Even if it is, it hardly matters. Faces Places is a moving film and worth celebrating, if only for the fact that at almost-90, Agnès Varda has not ceased to explore filmmaking and her fellow citizens with the curiosity and compassion befitting a true artist.
7 out of 10
Faces Places (2017, France)
Directed by Agnès Varda and JR.