Monday, January 29, 2018

Faces Places (2017)

This documentary is a collaboration between Agnes Varda and JR, who travel the French countryside in a van that looks like a camera, taking pictures of people and plastering the results giant size on the sides of buildings. Both have established careers as photographers, though Varda's name is likely more associated with filmmaking because she was a key figure in the French New Wave of the late '50s and early '60s with such films as Cleo From 5 to 7. Lately she is better known for documentaries such as The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnes. They are personal, quirky, and charming, and so is Faces Places, which might be my favorite of the three. It's a real collaboration too, as the van, the plastering aesthetic, and a lot of the ideas are JR's. We see them working out some of them here. With over 50 years' difference in their ages, the first surprise in a picture full of them is the kind of working chemistry they establish and maintain. Their sensibilities are well matched. JR's work shades over into realms of graffiti and even vandalism—he's a bit of a French Banksy. He takes the streets as the ultimate art gallery and he likes to work big. His van not only looks like a camera but has a photo booth in the back that churns out prints bigger than life. Cool Aunt Agnes Varda has an appreciation for JR's outlaw instinct but her own is more toward humanity and the pure pleasures of art, which rarely fail this movie. She just wishes JR would take off his shades once in a while. Faces Places is warm, generous, tender, insightful, and often very funny. They go to villages and make portraits of miners, farmers, goats, baristas, the wives of dockworkers, a postman, and more. They find an abandoned village, throw a picnic party, and cover the decaying buildings with faces. They have a sad encounter with Varda's long-time friend and colleague, Jean-Luc Godard. In one sequence they look for a place for an old photograph of Varda's and finally find it on a bunker that has fallen from a cliff onto a beach. The result is beautiful but the next day the elements of wind and tide have completely erased it. But that never stops them, or even discourages them much, and that commitment to the work, doing it and moving on to the next thing, may be the most moving element here. Although it could be the palpable connection they share. Or any of a number of brilliant images and many of the people they meet. It's hard to say because there are so many good things about this movie.

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