Here’s a charming love story to the forgotten towns of France rarely seen by the outside world, presented with a picture postcard beauty by legendary filmmaker Agnes Varda and internationally acclaimed conceptual artist JR. The pair make for an incredibly odd screen partnership; one is an elderly woman slowly losing her sight and rapidly approaching her 90th birthday, while the other is an artist who has never revealed his true identity and publicly hides behind a pair of shades, like a Gallic Bono. Yet their friendship with each other has led to their methods of creating art becoming revitalised, making for a sweet road movie that also doubles as a subtle examination of the artistic process.
Faces Places; (French title: Visages, villages); dirs.: JR, Agnes Varda; France 2017, 89 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★½/5
The concept of the documentary is simple: the pair travel to a variety of rural French locations to meet people within different communities and to create large portraits of them to be seen across the local area. These range from an entire community pictured eating a baguette (can you get any more French?), to a giant, heroic portrait of a farmer that now looms large over his barn. Each project is treated like an extended vignette, discovering the warm humanity that can be found inside the most average towns on the map. As far-right politicians have gained electoral success internationally by claiming they are speaking up for the “forgotten people” of each society, it’s quite wonderful to see the very same forgotten communities now transformed in to welcoming art projects, instead of being used as catalysts to excuse hateful rhetoric. Varda and JR both intuitively understand the inherent warmth in France’s small towns, and their portrayal of them helps make it easy to overlook some of the film’s numerous flaws elsewhere.
Despite its status as a frontrunner for the Best Documentary Oscar, Faces Places does feel frequently staged. Some of the townsfolk visited by the pair appear to be acting theatrically for the cameras, while the pair also share a number of interactions that have clearly been staged for comedic purposes; an early sequence where they both head to the shop to buy two chocolate eclairs is the most obvious example of a heavily scripted visual gag. It feels more accurate to call it a hybrid of documentary and fiction. The art projects designed by the pair all feel real, but the circumstances of their own partnership feel increasingly contrived as the film progresses. This deviation from form may anger some, but I can’t help but wonder if it was a very deliberate choice to leave several heavily staged sequence in the final project. Varda is a renowned dramatist, and the idea that she has become inspired to make a film due to her journey with JR is another delightfully meta interpretation left in the margins.
This would explain the sudden narrative arc that emerges in the film’s final half hour, as the pair’s carefree road trip soon leads to them visiting the home of Varda’s former collaborator Jean Luc Godard, one of cinema’s most restlessly experimental (and patience-testing) filmmakers. This disrupts the film’s initial narrative in the same way Godard himself has disrupted conventional narrative structure repeatedly across his filmography. Are these very clearly scripted sequences all part of an overarching commentary on the very nature of the burdens of creating art itself? I’m not entirely sure, but the film’s playfully inventive sensibility is nothing less than arresting.
If the idea of a meta-commentary on the very nature of crafting works of art sounds pretentious, then that couldn’t be further from the truth. Faces Places also acts as a moving examination on how the consumption of art changes as we grow older; Varda may be inspired by JR’s ceaselessly inventive mind, yet her increased short sightedness means that she can no longer enjoy these creations in the way she used to. The film’s carefree spirit is hiding moments of pure melancholy, which becomes more moving the further away from the comparatively joyous surroundings of the film you get.
It isn’t easily discernible whether Faces Places appears to be staged accidentally, or is very deliberately asking you to lean in as part of a meta examination. One thing is undoubtable though – the documentary is utterly charming, with plenty of things to say about the joy art can bring, and the people who help make it.