Director Agnes Varda and photographer/muralist J.R. journey through rural France and form an unlikely friendship.
Charming, eye-opening, and consistently hilarious, this photographic road trip through a series of French villages by two new friends, the 88 year old director Agnès Varda and 33 year old JR, a hipster artist known for his enormous photographs pasted onto huge outdoor backdrops, highlights the changes to rural life and how people of all ages are responding.
At the same time Varda looks back on old friendships and addresses the changes in her own life, as old age inflicts its physical struggles.
As JR drives the two of them from village to village, through fields filled with sunflowers and lavender, or sheep and goats, their easy friendship resulting in a Ring My Bell duet, they find rural people doing ordinary jobs that are self-described with entertaining eloquence. Subjects are chosen, picture are taken, and then pasted up on enormous backdrops – buildings, barns, sea-going containers.
Giant images in black and white have an aged quality about them while people’s reactions to them naturally involve social media and selfies. One waitress in a bar, photographed in a pretty dress, shading herself with a parasol, talks about how strange it is that so many people have now seen her, as the enormous image pasted onto a village wall – designed to be ephemeral – takes on a life of its own through Instagram.
And the making off these “new” photographs is interspersed with romantic family stories about grandparents falling in love, pictured stern in their sepia photos, or Varda’s own photographs of colleagues taken decades ago, every detail of how and where she took the picture engraved on her mind.
JR is a perpetual wearer of trilby and dark glasses, and it becomes a theme of the film that Varda wants him to take those shades off. He is choosing to alter what he sees, while Varda has an eye disease which leaves her vision blurred, though she seems remarkably accepting and indeed fascinated by how her views are literally changing. In a pleasing circularity JR is also the same age as Varda was in black and white photos of she and Jean-Luc Godard, another dark glasses wearer who did at last allow her to photograph him without them.
Varda, meanwhile, with her white pudding bowl haircut finished with beautiful bright copper ends, looks from a distance like a little merry tonsured monk.
JR’s van is a portable photographic studio, where subjects enter, are photographed, then out of the side of the van comes a huge print out of their picture, like those 1970s polaroids. It’s a real merging of the old and the new. Sure you can take a selfie whenever you want and post it on a hundred social media platforms but whoever actually gets round to printing them out? Yet here they are, ready to be pasted on a wall or house or water tower.
Equally fascinating are descriptions of ever-changing lives and jobs by the people in the photos. A farmer explains how isolating his role is, as he works 2000 acres with several huge pieces of equipment to help him but no one to talk to. He’s quite matter of fact about the creeping changes that have resulted in such an antisocial working day, though he delights in going home to his family in the evening.
An elderly woman, the last occupant in a row of miners’ cottages destined to be pulled down, remembers her father returning from the pit with the grimy ends of the loaf of bread he took with him for lunch and how she and her siblings liked this bit best.
Dockworkers’ wives are photographed, their images stuck piece by piece onto brightly coloured shipping containers which are then lifted into position, like those children’s bricks with pieces of a picture on one side, the image slowly becoming whole.
And then in constrast to these voluble, open strangers, there is the looming silent presence of Jean-Luc Godard, Varda’s long time friend.
Indeed at one point Varda and JR race through the Louvre in a joyous recreation of the scene in Godard’s Band Of Outsiders, this time with Varda in a wheelchair and JR pushing her at speed, sometimes leaping sideways over obstacles in his way, letting go then grabbing the wheelchair handles again, Varda listing the artists as they whizz by.
What holds this deliberately meandering trip together is the relationship between JR and Varda. Their warmth and consideration for each other means they can joke together constantly. It seems as if they have been cross-generational best friends for an eternity.
Sitting on adjacent benches he points out that her tiny stature means she is now stuck until he helps her down. When a village official tells him yes, that giant photo can go on the wall but the scaffolding needs a permit, JR says to him send all fines to Agnes Varda!
The giant images are mostly seen being taken, then already pasted up in situ. Occasionally we see the huge task this must be as they discuss getting equipment down to a windswept beach with a high tide, or when vast scaffolding is seen climbing up at the side of a cavernous barn. It must take ages pasting each picture, piece by piece, working up close but ensuring that from a distance everything looks perfect.
There are quieter times too when we pretend-eavesdrop on the two of them sitting with their backs to us, often by water, talking about who they have met and what it means. And while JR is 53 years younger than his co-director, there’s a sweet moment on a train speeding through the French countryside while both snooze against the window.
An occasional dark cloud looms, probably needed. JR and his film team laugh at Varda for rather too long as she explains why she has chosen a half-built cinderblock house as a backdrop, which they call the ugliest house in the area. And while her meditations on death and dying are bracingly honest as they look at lavender-covered graves in a tiny cemetery, the possible death of a friendship cuts deep.
Faces Places really is a sheer delight from beginning to end. A genuinely life-affirming film, charming and understanding, the stories it tells may be everyday but they are also funny and intriguing and, crucially, never patronising. The photographs tell part of the tale but the subjects are always happy to add more – there’s no need to draw their stories out of them.
JR says that his photos are designed to be ephemeral (some more so than others, depending on where they are located and the power of the elements). But the faces they portray – young or old, smooth or wrinkled, smiling or sad, sometimes smiling and sad, are anything but.
Watch the trailer for Faces, Places: