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Agnès Varda directed her first film, La Pointe Courte, in 1955 at the age of twenty-seven. Over the next sixty-three years, counting narrative films, documentaries, short films and television, she has directed fifty-two films. She has led a long and eventful life including a role in the French New Wave movement of the early 1960s, marriage to the director Jacques Demy (Demy passed away in 1990) and many great films. Amazingly, her most recent, and possibly final, film, the wonderful documentary Faces Places, is her first film nominated for an Oscar (its Best Documentary nomination makes Varda the oldest person ever nominated for a competitive Oscar).
Her partner in this film is JR, a French photographer and street artist known for taking people’s photos, enlarging them and pasting them on the sides of buildings, walls, water towers, etc. His work is humanitarian in nature. For example, in 2007 he and his team pasted giant black and white photographs of Israelis and Palestinians in several cities on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian security barrier. His goal was to put a human face on an extremely divisive issue in an attempt to get both sides of the conflict to see each other as people. This ethos informs most of his work.
The film follows Varda and JR as they travel the French countryside, talking to people and taking their pictures. Faces Places shows rural France, tells the stories of the various people they meet, as well as the friendship between Varda and JR, fifty-five years her junior. It also tells Varda’s story of growing older, gradually losing her eyesight and revisiting some of her memories while working on this project.
Their goal is to celebrate those who are never celebrated. Varda likes random chance, so they visit villages and talk to people to learn their stories. They go to a goat farm, a shipyard, an abandoned, half-finished village and a beach in Normandy that Varda had visited over sixty years ago. And through it all, Varda reflects on her age, vision, memory and past.
The biggest asset Faces Places has is its co-stars/co-directors. They are friendly and pass no judgment on their subjects. They make for pleasant travel companions; JR with his ubiquitous sunglasses and Varda with her multi-colored hair. You can see how they could charm strangers into letting them take their picture and display it. They are interested in people and their enthusiasm about their creativity is infectious.
Faces Places is a relatively short film, but it is not slight. There is a real love of life and humanity on display. Not just through the filmmakers’ kindness toward those they meet, but also through Varda’s reflections on her own life. There are some coincidental or overly convenient moments when I questioned how “real” things were. My guess is that not everything on-screen was entirely unplanned or being done for the first time. But what matters is that the people are real, the sentiments are real and Faces Places is a really good movie.
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews
Check out Ben’s last movie review on Maze Runner: The Death Cure.