If you’re a film nerd like me, you follow the various film festivals during the first half of the year (Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Cannes) with one ear to the cinematic ground, just waiting to hear what everyone’s going to be talking about come awards season.
If you’re a film nerd like me, you heard all kinds of buzz out of Cannes about something called Faces Places (Visages Villages), by someone named Agnès (said: Ahn-yes) Varda, an octogenarian filmmaker well known by everyone who knows anything about international cinema.
If you’re a (lacking) film nerd like me and you’d never heard of this Agnès Varda (!) but were immediately intrigued, you set off for your local library and spent the summer with this grande dame of French New Wave cinema, taking in Daguerréotypes from 1976, Mur Murs from 1981 and anything else you could get your hands on.
No? Just me?
No matter. Whether you’ve seen none of her 50+ directing efforts or all of them, get thee to the cinema to see Faces Places. Thank me later.
For over fifty years, Varda has made an art form of discovering the stories around her, setting up her camera on the street where she lives or around the city she’s working in and capturing life as it goes by. Her knack for authenticity has been evident from her films since day one, and with Faces Places, where she teams up with the installation artist known as JR, that knack is jubilantly, joyously on display in a film that gracefully and lovingly crosses that most clichéd of all bridges: restoring one’s faith in humanity.
With not one but two generations between them, Varda (now nearly 90) and JR (a spring chicken in his early 30s) form a bond that immediately resonates with their respective artistic indulgences. Together, they set off on a road trip through rural France in JR’s mobile photo booth, seeking who knows what but very much looking forward to finding it. Between small towns, they sing along to American pop songs on the radio and chat about JR’s grandmother, Varda’s friendship with Jean-Luc Godard.
And when they find themselves in what might be an interesting spot, they stop to see what happens. They’re on a journey of discovery, but for what is anyone’s guess. Which, of course, is more than half the fun. What’s possible when you open yourself up to anything? What stories might you uncover, what friendships might you forge?
In a nearly-abandoned mining town, they connect with the last woman living in a row of otherwise crumbling company houses. She recalls waiting for her dad to return from the mines, bringing with him leftover bread from his packed lunch, now dusted with soot. Soon, other locals gather, sharing their own stories of the once-bustling community, and it’s here where the magic happens. As the community gets comfortable with these well-meaning interlopers, JR gets to work creating massive black-and-white photos meant for the walls of the empty houses. On our friend the last resident’s house, he installs a haunting, searching photo of the woman herself.
And on they go, to an independent farm where they plaster the farmer larger than life on his own barn; to a picturesque small village where they turn an unsuspecting shop girl into international art; to a factory where the shift workers never cross paths until their group photos show up on the industrial walls. Just to name a few.
The wonder of Faces Places is, indeed, in the people Varda and JR meet as much as it is in the art they create together. But it’s also in the connection this odd couple forges over time, too. Certain moments of the quick 89-minute documentary, on which Varda and JR share director credit, are surely manufactured for the narrative. They share croissants over Varda’s cozy kitchen table, chatting about what they’d like to do next for their film. She gives him a hard time over and over again about the dark glasses he insists on wearing. He agrees to introduce her to his actual grandmother, who’s so proud of her grandson it practically emanates from her. But none of it is ever disingenuous, as that type of set-up can sometimes be. Instead, it fits in seamlessly with the rest of the film and the true discoveries of new landscapes, charming people and interesting stories.
I had a writing professor once who made the class keep journals especially for documenting what she called “extraordinary ordinary moments.” Every week, we were expected to notice the mundane and find the transcendent in it, and I reveled in it. I adored the idea of picking up on the exceptional of the everyday, and over time I found it connected me more to the world around me. I’ve long since stopped keeping that journal, but I still find myself aware of often otherwise unremarkable minutiae.
And that’s the closest I can come to expressing what Faces Places feels like: a real-life journey into the ordinary to find the extraordinary that connects us. Even in its brief melancholy moments—and there are a few of those, as Varda confronts the inevitable passing of time—it remains an entirely poignant exploration of life and love and whatever it is inside each of us that connects all of us.
Faces Places is now playing in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.