Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Agnès Varda directed her first film, La Pointe Courte, in 1955 at the age of twenty-seven. Over the next sixty-three years, counting narrative films, documentaries, short films and television, she has directed fifty-two films. She has led a long and eventful life which includes a role in the French New Wave movement of the early 1960s (her Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) is considered to be a significant part of the New Wave), marriage to the director Jacques Demy (Demy passed away in 1990) and many great films. Amazingly, her most recent, and possibly final, film, the wonderful documentary Faces Places, is her first film to be nominated for an Oscar (its Best Documentary nomination makes Varda the oldest person ever nominated for a competitive Oscar).
The film follows Varda and JR, a French photographer and street artist, as they travel the French countryside, talking to people and taking their pictures. JR then uses his mobile photo lab to enlarge and print those photos and pastes them to the sides of buildings, walls, water towers, etc. Faces Places shows rural France, tells the stories of the various people they meet and the story of the friendship between Varda and JR, fifty-five years her junior. It also tells Varda’s story of growing older, gradually losing her eyesight and revisiting some of her memories while working on this project. This is a documentary whose making is its own subject.
Their goal is to celebrate those who are never celebrated. Varda likes random chance, so they visit villages and talk to people to learn their stories. They go to places like a goat farm, a shipyard, an abandoned, half-finished village and a beach in Normandy that Varda had visited over sixty years ago. And through it all, there is Varda, reflecting on her age, her vision, her memory and her past.
The biggest asset Faces Places has it its co-stars/co-directors. They are likable, friendly and pass no judgment on their subjects. They make for very pleasant travel companions; JR with his ubiquitous sunglasses and Varda with her multi-colored hair. You can see how they could charm strangers into letting them take their picture and display it, much larger than life, on a building. They are interested in people and their enthusiasm about their creativity is infectious.
Faces Places is a relatively short film (89 minutes without the end credits), but it is not slight. There is a real love of life and humanity on display here. Not just through the filmmakers’ kindness toward the people they meet, but also through Varda’s reflections on her own life. As someone who has a strong interest in the French New Wave and French cinema in general, that material was especially appealing to me. However, there is a lot to enjoy here even if you have no pre-existing knowledge about any of that stuff. Her story is universal and certainly easy to follow. As are all of the other stories contained in this film.
Faces Places is an extremely charming film. It is also insightful and moving. It is a documentary but, for those that do not like documentaries, it is very much a narrative film. There are some coincidental or overly convenient moments when I questioned how “real” things were. My guess is that not everything on-screen was unplanned or being done for the first time. But that does not matter. What does matter is that the people are real, the sentiments are real and Faces Places is a really good movie.
4½ out of 5
Written and Directed by JR and Agnès Varda