In the film Faces Places, which is now playing in cinemas and on demand in the UK, the legendary French film director Agnes Varda teams up with photographer JR on a road trip through France presenting large scale photographs of people in unique and odd locations. They drive around in a truck that has a giant photograph of a camera lens that operates as a mobile photo booth and printer. People step inside the truck, take their picture and the print comes out of the side of the truck. The pairing of JR and Varda is a perfect cinematic juxtaposition. The 33 year old JR is young, hip and always wears his trademark hat and black sunglasses, refusing to take them off as much as Varda pleads with him. Varda, with her two-toned bowl haircut is incredibly petite, as if gravity is trying to pull her 88 year old body into the ground. She is wonderfully eccentric, calm and confident in the knowledge that her time on this planet is certainly nearing its end and embarking on a project that satisfies her. “JR is fulfilling my greatest desire. To meet new faces and photograph them, so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory” she says.
Though the film is a documentary, it has some nice moments of fancy. The film begins by showing how the two of them didn’t meet with comical scenes of missed opportunities like Varda dancing in a night club with JR just a few feet away or at a bus stop where an annoyed Varda can’t be bothered to wait the three minutes and decides to walk instead. The two set off trying to meet people in remote villages of France and try to connect them to each other and the audience through their work. The final result of the first set up is over a dozen portraits connected by a giant baguette.
One of the things they address is how as technology has improved we are becoming more and more isolated. They photograph one farmer who was able to cut his entire staff because he can do the work of a few people alone with his modern equipment but laments that it has made him anti-social. They paste a massive portrait of him that takes up his entire barn and saying that they’ll make him the star of the village of 140, to which the man replies he already is.
One of the film’s most poignant stories features a woman who refuses to leave her childhood home, the last of a row of houses in an old mining village. They memorialise her by placing her photograph on her entire home which moves the woman to tears.
The nature of JR’s work is ephemeral and they paste one of Varda’s cherished photographs of an old friend on a German bunker which fell into the beach and within a day the photo is washed away. “The sea always has the last word” Varda says. The simple and profound film is also a meditation on death with Varda talking about friends and loved ones who have passed, including her husband the director Jacques Demy. There is a scene at the end of the film which is so painfully beautiful that I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s something that will certainly stay with me for a very long time. Varda’s eyes tell a story in themselves of a lifetime of hurt, betrayal, tolerance but also joy. JR is keen to this and ends the film by pasting her eyes on a train saying they will travel to places Varda has never been.