Written by: Agnes Varda, Directed by: Varda and JR
It’s not hard to find a good documentary film. There are plenty of subjects worth learning about in two hour sequences of moving, colored images. Great documentaries, however, blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction. In some cases, producing a documentary like this requires a huge historical coincidence. That was the case with Joshua Oppenheimer’s, The Act of Killing, which explored the eagerness of people who had committed horrid acts of political murder in Indonesia to explore their acts through participation in gangster films.
In other (lighter), cases, however, quasi-fictional documentaries requires the spark of their director’s. Yes, for instance, told the story of a Québecois-Separatist-artist’s journey to immerse himself in the Scottish independence movement. This year saw the release of a similarly inspired documentary: Agnes Varda’s Faces Places.
Faces Places features Varda following JR, a young photographer who prints out giant photographs of his subjects and prints them on public buildings. Varda explains her investment in the project by noting her desire to get to know more people. Each of the film’s subjects is brought to attention for very different reasons: some speak to a history of working class suffering, others ask us to reconsider the dominant farmer-farm-animal relationship, while others are simply locals offered the chance to gnaw on a baguette.
I began to doubt the film’s potential about a third of the way in. While Varda and JR were certainly finding original subjects to portray, I found the art that the film focused on to be getting a bit repetitive. Furthermore, I questioned the approach of always decorating walls with giant cut outs of people. If this film was truly a celebration of faces and places, wouldn’t it be a better idea to make some smaller cut outs, so as not to obscure buildings in their entirety, and so as not to deny the chance of other people involved in the history of a site to be represented?
My fears were soon assuaged, however. While I may maintain some artistic differences with JR, those differences became increasingly irrelevant as the film came to be about Varda and JR, not so much their art. For instance, one of the subjects that Varda proposes JR document is someone she photographed in her past, not necessarily a person with an area defining story. The film also shows us their conversations along the way. We see Varda’s ambivalent relationship to her age (approximately 88 at the time of the filming). On the one hand, as in previous works, she exposes her aging on film via depictions of medical procedures performed on her eyes. On the other hand, she is insistent on maintaining her youth, through example, through her bright orange hair and by contrasting herself with JR’s 100-year old grandmother. JR’s personality, meanwhile, remains more mysterious. Varda, however, regularly questions his reserved tone, particularly his decision to always wear sunglasses.
Faces Places, in short is a little bit political, a little bit educational, and a little bit of an homage to film history. More than anything else, however, its a buddy comedy like none you’ve probably ever seen. While its premise may prove a hard sell, those who do choose to see it will find that it is an easy work to love and perhaps one of the most creative cinematic concepts of the year.