English Title: Faces Places
Original Title: Visages, Villages
Directors/Writers: JR, Agnès Varda
Music: Matthieu Chedid
Roberto De Angelis
Romain Le Bonniec
An Oscar-nominated documentary borne out of the May-December friendship between an 88-year-young Agnès Varda and an 33-year-old French graffiti artist JR, FACES PLACES is a congenial travelogue roving around a bucolic France in their instant-camera-shaped van with the pair’s artistic wandering eyes to discern pertinent faces and places and vouchsafe them larger-than-life tributes, in the form of giant portraits printed and plastered on the wall.
Those magnificent vignettes brilliantly hones up the project’s humble humanistic gesture and overtures of “art-changing-the-way-we-see-the-world” initiative by bringing art to ordinary folks at close quarters, and the duo’s camera faithfully captures the benefactors’ genuine emotion (raging from gratitude to nonchalance), but perceptively without overstaying its welcome lest it borders on largess-ladling smugness. The segment in Le Havre hammers out an empowering encomium of the “invisible” women, who are
behind beside (as Varda correctly rephrases) their husbands, on the frontage of a towering congregation of containers. But for my money, the film’s de-facto star showpiece is an ephemeral gem of re-working Varda’s vintage photo of her erstwhile artist friend Guy Bourdin (1928-1991) on the surface of a deserted bunker plunged on the beach, a personal homage to the departed impeccably wed with the precious nature of art’s transcendence.
JR and Varda’s road trip can also conducive to a mini-sociological and anthropological study, through their seemingly extemporaneous encounter with various people, we get a glimpse of France’s current agrarian situation: a ghost-town is revivified for one day in collective effort; a farmer who takes on a 200-acre fieldwork all on his own; asserting its slant through the mural of a goat with its two horns, to the thorny dilemma between productivity-augmenting, manpower-shrinking modernization vs. traditional cottage-industry business that respects life as it is; also memorable is the visage of a timeworn minimal-pension receiver, living peacefully in solitude in his own quaint kingdom, tantalizing us with his unsaid backstory.
On another hand, for cineastes, the expectation of seeing and knowing more of the grandmother of nouvelle vague, is par for the course, but an elfin Varda, albeit of being remarkably sprightly and articulate, in concert with a more elusive JR, burdened by his Banksy-inspired semi-anonymity, proffers little spark from the anecdotal division, except for Jean-Luc Godard’s immaterial cameo, gently ruffles Varda’s feathers and astutely allows JR to accord Varda a parting gift, but no need to flog the dead horse, as mutual respect should have initiated in day one when they start this ebullient, win-win project.