While politicians and pundits puzzle over the decline and dispossession of small towns as a result of deindustrialisation, a pair of eccentric experimental artists — one an eighty-nine year-old filmmaker with a two-tone bowl cut; the other an anonymous street artist who hides behind his sunglasses — depart for the French countryside in a truck resembling and rigged to function as an oversized camera, complete with its own photo booth and printer. Their aim: to photograph the residents of the rural villages they pass and paste their portraits onto the facades of the buildings that they inhabit. Or something.
Odd couples don’t come much odder than Agnes Varda and JR, the curious (in both senses of the word) co-directors of Faces Places. She used to work with Jean-Luc Godard and he looks like Jean-Luc Godard, in a quirk of fate so canny that it’s almost impossible to write it off to chance alone. Rather than begin with details of their meeting, the film decides instead to dramatise all of the ways in which they did not meet, be it at a bus stop or a nightclub — cue the spectacle of Varda cutting loose on the dance floor. The film’s promise to explore the intersection between people and places begins to feel more like a collision course set between the fanciful, slightly facetious filmmakers and the mundane, rather more sober reality faced by their unsuspecting subjects.
Remarkably, mercifully, the title is the most contrived element of the film, itself a translation of the sleeker French couplet Visages Villages. The audience may never learn how Agnes Varda and JR did actually meet but their friendship is so comfortably wrought that you never for a moment question the authenticity of their collaboration. What’s more, they show such genuine interest in the individuals they encounter along the way — from milkmen and farmers to a vagabond who makes art from bottle caps (in another seemingly serendipitous nod, this time to Varda’s Gleaners and I) — that their attention and abstraction doesn’t feel intrusive or inappropriate but rather strangely apt. This isn’t condescension but conversation; Varda and JR make a real effort to support the people they meet, celebrating their lives and championing their causes.
These include a stubborn soul who refuses to abandon the mining community of which she is now the sole remaining resident, inspiring the pair to repopulate her street with paper inhabitants and to paste her portrait across her own home in a show of solidarity and defiance against those who would wish to redevelop it; the only goat farmer in the region who doesn’t remove her herd’s horns, resulting in another building-sized composition intended to inform and ignite a debate about the commercialisation of livestock; and a trio of dockworkers working in one of France’s largest ports, prompting Varda to not only ask about their wives but to insist on having their images blown up and plastered over a towering wall of shipping containers — dominating the landscape. Inevitably a pattern does emerge, as each village Varda and JR visit is invariably tagged with a Banksy-esque mural, but the pair are so compelling and unpredictable that they compensate for any sense of repetition.
It may seem facile and ultimately futile to attempt to paper over the cracks (case in point: one of their creations is literally swept away overnight), but Varda and JR certainly can’t be faulted for trying. Whether they change anything is beside the point; they’re photographers, documentary filmmakers, and they have undoubtedly captured something of interest and relevance. More than that, they have made an impression, and their work has impacted and inspired those who interact with it — evoking not just feelings of sadness and nostalgia but of camaraderie and strength. Varda may be losing her sight and mobility but thanks to JR’s efforts here — not just in papering her eyes and feet to a freight train but in helping her to produce this, possibly her final film — she will continue to engage with the world around her.