A documentary by Agnès Varda. In French, with English subtitles. Rated PG
“You can make something out of anything,” says a hobo collage artist living alone in the woods outside of Paris. “All you need is an idea.”
He’s just one of the many offbeat, marginalized, or simply ordinary people celebrated in this ceaselessly enchanting tour de France. And his upbeat notion is animated by our lovable hosts, veteran filmmaker Agnès Varda, 88, and the 33-year-old photographer called JR, who specializes in plastering giant portraits on available walls, water towers, and railcars.
They met on the festival circuit and decided to make a movie together; the most beguiling charm of Faces Places (French title: Villages Visages) is that they keep letting you in on their improvisations as they drive across the country, and eventually to Switzerland, in JR’s big, black cameramobile—out of which those giant posters are manufactured.
At it since 1955, Varda’s the nouvelle vague survivor (Vagabond is perhaps her best-known feature) whose retinue originally contained husband Jacques Demy, pal François Truffaut, and mentor Jean-Luc Godard. The last-named’s presence is strong, from JR’s ubiquitous hat and dark glasses to a scene from JLG’s 1964 Bande à part that they re-create in the Louvre, later, when his presence also becomes an absence. Along the way, they visit a forgotten coal town, lonely farmers, oft-striking dockworkers, and rival goat-keepers (one side lets them keep their horns, the other doesn’t), among many others. All are amused to be part of the artistic process, and their delight at being recognized—we’re talking images more than 10 times the subject’s size—is contagious. They also visit the humble grave of Henri Cartier-Bresson and childhood home of Varda’s early friend and photo subject Guy Bourdin, who later became a top fashion photographer.
Through it all, the directors tease each other playfully and, through play, reveal the seriousness of their methods. In one time-lapse sequence, we see how much effort is required for JR’s crew to mount a huge portrait (of Bourdin) on a World War II beach bunker in Normandy—only to find it entirely washed away the next morning. For her part, the pixielike Varda, who just received a special Oscar for her body of work, takes everything in stride. Her eyes are fading, but life’s still a blast. “Chance has always been my best assistant,” she insists. And who can argue?