faces places varda

Now aged 89, Agnès Varda has possibly, over the last two decades, had more fun than any filmmaker alive. Having rediscovered the possibilities of low-budget, intensely personal filmmaking thanks to camcorders in The Gleaners and I (2000), she has also reinvented herself as a much respected video and installation artist; turned Paris’s Fondation Cartier and other venues into a re-creation of her beloved holiday island of Noirmoutier; filled her house with an installation of brooms, in an obscure gag punning on a French slang word for “years”; and attended art fairs dressed as a potato. Showing no sign of slowing down, Varda has now found herself a much younger partner in crime—the French photographer and installation artist known only as JR—and headed off with him on the extended road trip that has produced the collaboratively directed Faces Places (Visages Villages).

The duo, who alternate voiceover comments, joke at the start about how they met—it wasn’t on the road, nor at a bus stop, in a bakery, or at a disco, although they provide little vignettes to illustrate all these possibilities (later, Varda semi-scandalizes someone by saying they met on a dating site). But it’s clear that the doyenne director and her adoptive son-nephew-sidekick are made for each other, forming the most improbable buddy-comedy duo you can imagine: Varda resembling a stout, determined turtle, with her trademark two-tone pudding-basin hairdo, while JR could be a younger Mathieu Kassovitz playing a generic Parisian hipster. JR is never without his fedora and dark glasses. The latter worry Varda a lot—she’s forever pestering him to take them off, complaining that it puts a distance between them. Even Jean-Luc Godard, she says, took his shades off for her once, in a silent short that found its way into her Cléo from 5 to 7.

JR insists on wearing his shades through most of the film, and they keep him somewhat at a distance from us too—we never get a sense of who this politely whimsical young man is, partly because he’s overshadowed by Varda’s bigger personality. Still, his glasses don’t seem to impair his ability to look at the world. JR’s specialty is photographing people and implanting their images in different environments associated with them, sometimes plastering their giant images on the fronts of houses, sometimes organizing bigger installations, such as the recent installation of a giant baby peering curiously over the US-Mexico border wall.

faces places varda

The work that JR and Varda create together isn’t always as pointedly political as the Mexican baby project, but if you believe that the personal is the political, then there’s always a political dimension to Faces Places, even when the couple seem to be just flitting about, meeting people, coming up with ideas (apparently) on the spur of the moment. The pair hit the road in JR’s comical little truck, disguised as a camera with a photo booth in the back; people step into it to be photographed, and the apparatus spits out a poster-sized photograph of them. JR’s first stunt is to take close-ups of villagers chomping on a baguette, then pasting them up side by side so that they all seem to be biting into the same elongated loaf—a sweetly surreal image, but a comic picture of social solidarity too.

As they move around France wherever the fancy—and the editing, by Varda and Maxime Pozzi-Garcia—take them, JR and Varda are like a miniature travelling circus, rolling into town and getting everyone to join in their latest prank. Those pranks are sometimes implicitly political, although politics per se never comes into the discussion: still, the photo projects are often exercises in celebrating French working-class identity. In the North of France, Varda and JR visit an old mining community where the past is on the verge of being forgotten, but some veteran residents remember the rigors of the working life. A row of ancient miners’ cottages is due for demolition, and entirely deserted, except for one elderly woman, Jeanine, who refuses to move out. JR plasters the row of houses with photos of miners from the past, and honors Jeanine, la résistante, with her own huge likeness all over her own house: she’s moved to tears at the sight.

In the Situationist tradition of rethinking and transforming everyday life, JR and Varda travel round offering little presents like these to people and communities they encounter. They do it not with the loftiness of professional art people dropping their bounty, but in a spirit of collaboration and openness—even if Varda’s bustling, distracted manner can sometimes suggest a rather peremptory great-aunt charging in and telling people where to sit. The people who live near the deserted village of Pirou get to work directly in the project, wielding scissors to cut round the outlines of their own photo before being collaged together into a community of giant faces.

faces places varda

There’s always some point to what JR and Varda do, and behind the point, a strong feeling. If they plaster a goat on a barn, it’s because Varda—after a conversation with a farming woman who refuses to de-horn her herd—is compelled by the argument about keeping goats natural. But these animals also capture her imagination because they recall a photograph of a dead goat on a beach that she took in 1954. Little Proustian flickers of memory keep animating the film: the sight of a German bunker that has crashed from its cliff onto a stony beach reminds Varda of the photos she once took of her friend Guy Bourdin—later a celebrated photographer himself. After a complex process of calculation by JR’s tech team (in one of their rare appearances), a huge photo of the young Bourdin, lolling against a surface, is pasted onto the bunker’s side. The next morning, the tide has washed it entirely away. “Ephemeral images are my stock in trade,” JR says resignedly, but a subtle point has been made here about memory and the difficulty of retaining images from the past—an observation that’s particularly poignant given Varda’s age.

Inevitably, mortality and frailty are key themes of Varda’s thought here, ones that she has already explored in her entertaining memoir film The Beaches of Agnès. Having completed what everyone might have assumed was a sort of auto-obituary, she’s now made a follow-up in which her own failing vision—several images here comically or poignantly simulate her blurred eyesight—is supplemented by the eyes of a younger kindred spirit. JR’s own eye for a good image is in turn supplemented by Varda’s memory and sense of social and cultural history: hence the mural of a postman in the South of France, an affable, stout fellow in a peaked cap who could have walked out of Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fête, or been the subject of a Van Gogh portrait.

Some of the images JR works with here are motivated by political ideas. It’s Varda the feminist who decides that she’s going to look for the women who seem to be absent from a docks workforce in Le Havre. She finds three women who are married to dockers—all blonde, all dressed in black, like three coastal Graces—although one, Sylvie, is also this community’s only female long-distance lorry driver. They’ve always stood behind their men in their struggles, they insist—to which Varda responds, “Why do you say ‘behind’ and not ‘beside’?” The three women end up as monumental images, plastered on a wall of containers.

faces places varda

Perhaps the most telling comment in terms of what the film has to say about work is the comment of a man named Amaury, the technical inspector at a chemical plant where hydrochloric acid and other dangerous substances are made. It’s his job to check the equipment, to make sure everyone’s safe. “It’s exciting to have a meaningful job,” he comments—and the line jumps out at you as altogether revelatory. When did you last hear someone say something like that in a film—communicate how their work matters to them, makes them happy?

Varda and JR like people who do things, make things, work in collaboration with others. They like meeting people, getting ideas from them, being surprised (“Chance has always been my best assistant,” Varda says) and surprising people in return: “Art is mean to surprise us, right?” says a chemical worker. There is the occasional larger-than-life character on the way—notably a dreadlocked old bohemian named “Pony,” with a graveyard grin and a face of sun-parched terracotta—but generally, the filmmakers are interested in ordinary people who happen to respond readily to the opportunity for a conceptual laugh. As JR explains, the project is about him and Varda expressing their imaginations on people’s terrain, and they do it graciously and with good cheer.

There’s a very poignant moment at the end which might or might not be set up, although at one point Varda seems genuinely to cry. She takes JR to visit Jean-Luc Godard in his Swiss retreat of Rolle, promising him an encounter with “a solitary philosopher.” Godard is not at home, but leaves a cryptic message—alluding to time spent in the past with Varda and her late husband Jacques Demy—that is either heartfelt or tactless, but either way upsets her considerably. She calls Godard a dirty rat—but leaves him a gift of brioches anyway.

faces places varda

People used to use the term “second childhood” for a certain, declining phase of old age, but Varda has, for years, been giving that term a meaning of her own. Part of her art these days consists of being as childlike as she pleases, turning everyday life into a game, and encouraging others to do likewise. Whether JR is racing her breakneck through the Louvre in a wheelchair, in a tribute to Band of Outsiders, or pasting giant images of Varda’s toes on the side of a railway truck, the two of them demonstrate that artists can be serious about the world and about intervening in it, but they don’t necessarily have to be “solitary philosophers.” As this breezy, politically and humanistically generous film shows, they can be gregarious playmates too.

Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.