In Faces Places, the legend that is Agnès Varda codirects for the first time with renowned photographer and installation artist, JR. The unlikely pair travel across picturesque rural France, pasting gigantic pictures of the people they meet wherever they go. The pictures are a celebration of the ordinary people, but upon reflecting with the subjects, we learn that no one is in fact ordinary. As cliché as it may sound, Varda and JR show us that everyone has a story worth listening to.
The people they meet range from ex-miners and factory workers, to an exuberant man named Pony who lives completely off grid. Pony is overjoyed to see his portrait print out of the side of JR’s van, designed to look like a big camera. He invites the two of them to his home, where he shows them the art he makes from bottle caps people leave behind. He tells them, with great sincerity, “I have so much in this life.”
Agnès Varda and JR are a wholesome comedy duo for the ages. Constantly bickering and joking with each other. JR is like an energetic grandson running ahead to the next destination, whilst Varda looks deadpan to the camera like Jim Halpert in The Office. She is distinctly aware of her own mortality; we accompany her to the optometrist in the film as she describes growing old and blind, prompting this determination to meet and learn from everyone. She documents these people so that, as she puts it, they don’t “fall into the hole of memory.”
The scale at which they honour the people they meet is gloriously life-affirming. One of their first encounters is with a woman named Jeanine; she’s the last person living in a row of old miner’s homes that is scheduled to be demolished. She has stood her ground and lived there all her life. They immortalize her through pasting her portrait on the entire front wall of the building.
The film isn’t just about the people they meet but about the pair themselves. We follow Varda on visits to the hospital, watch as JR photographs her eyes, hands, and feet. He pastes them on a cargo train and we watch as her eyes go off and see the world without her. Towards the end, Varda schedules to meet with her old friend Jean-Luc Godard. He does not show, instead leaving a note that visibly upsets her. JR sees this, and as a show of care he removes his sunglasses for her – which he is famous for never removing at all. Of course, this is blurred for the audience, as it is a gesture for her alone. She says, “I don’t see you very well, but I see you.”
This moment encompasses the heart of the whole film; simply making the effort to see and understand other people spreads warmth and love we can’t even comprehend. Faces Places is a heart-warming celebration of curiosity and empathy, proving there is heroism to be found in the mundane. I sincerely hope they work together again.
by Millicent Thomas
Millicent Thomas is a proud Mancunian who will be studying film at Bath School of Art & Design from September 2018. Hobbies include theatre, museums and waiting for Charles Xavier to show up and tell her she’s the world’s most powerful mutant. Her favourite films include Whiplash, Her, Logan and Short Term 12. You can follow her on Instagram at @millicentathomas and twitter at @millicentonfilm