TIFF Review: 'Faces Places'

Faces Places (Visages villages)
(France, 90 min.)
Dir. Agnès Varda, JR
Programme: Masters (Canadian premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF

Faces Places features the oddball couple of 89-year-old filmmaker Agnès Varda and thirtysomething photographer/street artist JR, but one won't find a better pair of kindred spirits at the movies this year. The two artists join forces and embark on an ambitious street art series as they tour the villages of rural France taking portraits of the local residents and pasting enlarged visages on the buildings of these small towns. At once a road trip and a non-fiction art film, Faces Places is a whimsical masterpiece of documentary filmmaking that pays tribute to the land and its inhabitants by intimately connecting the two.

The veteran Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7) brings her experience and wisdom in art and life to the relationship while JR, who is much like a French Banksy character, contributes some rebellious spirit and fresh ideas akin to those that Varda helped pioneer in the French New Wave. Don’t be fooled by Varda’s age and frail appearance: she is just as youthful as her co-director is and every bit as enthralled by the power of the camera as a budding artist discovering it for the first time.

The duo also complements one another with their unique ways of seeing. A running gag throughout the film sees Varda tut-tut JR for hiding behind his sunglasses and a hat. While JR sees the world through tinted shades, Varda’s eyes are failing her. She needs motion to see more than blurry blobs—a fitting metaphor for the power of motion pictures that runs throughout the film—and her struggle for clear vision makes this journey bittersweet. Varda has changed many lives using the eye of a camera, yet her own lenses soon will no longer be able to see.

What a joy it is to watch a master at work with a young protégé. JR feeds Varda’s creativity in a reciprocal relationship. The artists share sparks of inspiration as they sit in Varda's kitchen under the watchful eye of her fuzzy cat. Varda and JR riff on style and meaning as they develop a project that bridges their artistic visions and desires. The elder artist expresses a wish to make something collaborative that lets her interact with new people to learn about their experiences. Drawing upon their mutual love for photography, they concoct the plan to take pictures of the locals in small towns around France.

Their first shoot guarantees to hook audiences if the conceit and charm of the artists have not already reeled them in. Varda and JR take on of the most iconic of French pastimes—chomping on baguettes—and they invite villagers young and old to enter their travelling photo booth and have their pictures taken as they bite down on the white bread. JR's team pastes the photos along a village wall with the baguettes serving as connective tissue between the photographs. The villagers, like a community gathered around a celebratory feast, are united by bread.

The participatory portraiture continues as Varda and JR find a range of subjects for their cameras. An old fresco pays tribute to the ancestors of a village as an old family photo plasters a historic building and reminds the subject's grandchildren of their roots. Faces Places offers a multi-generational selfie game as the pair of sibling descendants snaps a photo that captures their family’s legacy in the community.

Other portraits intimately link the unique characteristics of the locales with their distinct characters. A seaside town finds yields a portrait of a carefree young waitress with a parasol. It’s a beautiful portrait, but when she becomes a local tourist attraction, the woman becomes uncomfortable, almost violated, by seeing herself as an object of novelty for the Instagramming masses. A barn, on the other hand, hosts larger than life likenesses of a poetic goat farmer and a goat to pay tribute to the countrymen and animals who provide France with all its good cheeses. The goat becomes the first overt political statement of Varda and JR’s experiment since the aforementioned farmer removes the horns of his animals at birth, a point to which the elder filmmaker objects on rules of cruelty and nature.

A camera is one of the most powerful tools one can have in art and politics alike and Faces Places uses representation and composition to assert the lives of French men and women who don’t conventionally get their due in the national imagination. One great sequence, for example, brings the duo to a shipping doc, which Varda objects isn’t a proper village for their shoot. Nonsense, JR and the men say, since the rows and columns of shipping pods form a village of their own and the workplace is itself a surrogate village where people come and build lives and relationships with their colleagues. Varda has a flash of genius and decides to occupy the male space of the shipyard with gargantuan portraits of the wives of men who work the docs. Three women—a dispatcher, a hairstylist and (ho! ho!) a big rig driver—stand tall above their husbands in a refreshing transferral of power.

Permanence and ephemerality become prominent themes in Faces Places as Varda takes stock of the project and realizes that her final movie may be nearing its end. She revisits cherished old photographs and encourages JR to help her revisit the haunts of past pictures. The shoots bring to life old characters like Guy Bourdin in a seaside mural that lasts only as long as the tide does. The permanence of the landscape endures far more than the faces the artists plaster across the land, but the spirits of the people captured in the photographs endure until memory fails.

The cruel ephemerality of love and friendship brings Varda and JR to another of the filmmaker’s old friends: Jean-Luc Godard. The Breathless filmmaker lives up to his reputation as an asshole of the highest order when time comes to take a shot. Godard and JR have uncanny parallels and are fitting subjects to help bring Varda’s filmmaking full circle. But when Godard’s petty malice leaves the artists without a picture, they find the best kind of portrait—a moment shared between two people without the filter of a screen, lens, or frame. As Varda and JR share a tableau vivant by the shore, Faces Places inspires with its life-affirming beauty.

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TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more info on this year’s festival.