Directors: Agnes Varda, JR
Cast: Agnes Varda, JR, Jean-Paul Beaujon, Amaury Bossy, Yves Boulen, Jeannine Carpentier, Marie Douvet, Claude Ferchal
Watch Faces Places online in the UK: Netflix UK / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Sky Store
The set-up to Faces Places (a nice translation of the French title, Visages Villages) is beguilingly simple. 88 year old filmmaker Agnes Varda teams up with 33 year old hipster street artist-slash-photographer JR (who she deems a kindred spirit) for an artistic project, in which they travel around rural France and take photos of all the people they meet. Using JR’s specially equipped photo booth truck (charmingly kitted out to look like a mobile camera), they make giant copies of the photographic portraits and effectively wallpaper them onto the sides of buildings.
“Chance has always been my best assistant,” Varda declares, and you can see what she means. The reactions from the people she meets and photographs are joyous, life-affirming and frequently moving. As for the photos themselves, they both celebrate and memorialise rural life, and the contrasts between the subjects and the surfaces often evoke powerful emotion, not least in the case of a row of former miner’s cottages, where Varda and JR plaster portraits of the miners who used to live there, bringing tears to the eyes of the woman who’s now the only resident of the entire terrace.
Ostensibly, there’s no political overtone to the film, but it’s hard not to feel moved by the portraits’ de facto tribute to working class life. Subjects for the film include factory employees in charge of plant safety, a single farmer who tends 2,000 acres entirely on his own, a man who runs a cinema in a village, and a group of Le Havre truck drivers and dock workers, whose faces end up on a stack of shipping containers in a lovely bit of speeded up footage.
As the road trip progresses, so too does the relationship between Varda and JR, with his ever-present sunglasses (“like Godard”) eventually getting on her nerves. That, in turn, has an extremely touching pay-off at the end of the film, with a simple gesture that says everything about their friendship.
As for Varda’s supposed long-time friend, Godard, he makes the most ungracious of non-cameos here. The veteran director sends a message to Varda and JR, asking them to visit him, but when they arrive at his house, there’s a cryptic message written on the window and the grumpy old bastard fails to show up. Varda, for her part, is visibly angry and upset (she calls him “a dirty rat”) and it’s a painful moment to watch, making you wonder whether he did it on purpose, or just bailed at the last minute because he didn’t want to be in her film. Either way, it’s the only sour note in what is otherwise an utterly charming, one-of-a-kind film. Don’t miss it.
Faces Places is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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