Legendary filmmaker Agnes Varda teams up with photographer JR in a charming creative road trip around France that celebrates the extraordinariness of ordinary people and the power of the imagination.
Celebrating Lifeby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Diminutive 88-year-old Nouvelle Vague filmmaker Agnes Varda and lanky 33-year-old photographer/street artist JR teamed up for this project two years ago and, as creative partners, the odd couple are beyond adorable.
JR’s travelling photo booth is done up to look like a camera and it can churn out giant prints. To make these most humane of artworks, the two travel around France making building-size public installations out of their portraits of ordinary people. They also talk to them about their lives, tease out the little details of their individuality: they value them for what they are. It’s uniquely moving.
An elderly woman is the last resident of a terrace of former miners’ houses, the pit long since closed. They plaster her portrait looking out across the front of her house. It’s a massive recognition of the value of her life and her history and she’s visibly moved when it’s unveiled.
There’s a farmer, proud of his farm and his life’s work.
There’s a group of wives of dockers at a container port, factory workers and the only female HGV driver, a postman who delivers groceries as well as letters – the attention Varda and JR give them seems to validate their lives. All the subjects talk unselfconsciously and are treated with respect.
JR helps Varda recreate one of the first photographs she ever took, before she became a filmmaker. It’s on the side of fallen blockhouse on the beach and the tides washes the posters off overnight. It’s an image of the impermanence that’s implicit in what they’re creating.
Varda and JR are such an unlikely couple at the start. He irritates her at first because he won’t take off his hat and sunglasses. But they grow to treat each other with fondness and love. They share and ageless playfulness, joy in creativity and a sensitivity towards others. And fun – JR whooshes Varda around the Louvre in a wheelchair in a nod to Godard’s Bande à part. And a planned meeting with Godard himself, an old friend of Varda, doesn’t take place, to her obvious hurt.
Despite the physical problems of old age – we see her in a medical appointment for her failing eyesight – Varda has lost none of her creative edge and JR is a perfect partner. The two together have created a film that is an unusual and surprising work of the imagination. Faces Places is unbelievably charming, wise and life-affirming. When it ended, I realised that I had sat through the entire film with a big grin on my face.
Faces Places screened out of competition at the 61st Cannes Film Festival, where it won the L’Œil d’or award. It is released on 21 September 2018 in the UK.