Rating: 4 out of 5
Agnes Varda is still around, making movies, just being her charming self, and we should all be thankful. As the Godmother of the French New Wave she’s been making films since the mid-50’s that become more vital and alive with each passing day. Her latest work, 2017’s Faces Places is at once a perfect starting point for newcomers of her films and an incredibly satisfying, insightful documentary for long time fans. In collaboration with her friend and artist JR they chart a course across France that makes for a humble and touching road movie.
The movie begins with Varda and JR admitting they do not fully know where the film itself is headed, which provides for much of the excitement in this documentary. The subjects haphazardly fall into place but the vibrancy of each interaction creates a unique feeling of discovery. None of these people were hollering for their stories to be told but we’d all be remiss if they weren’t. Varda and JR travel France erecting giant, building sized art exhibits in public spaces. The most poignant of these encounters was an old woman who was refusing to leave her home due to an incoming wave of gentrification in her neighborhood. Varda and JR photograph her then expand the size of her portrait to cover the entirety of her home. The scene of her seeing this picture for the first time, huge and monument-like, is one of the most purely sentimental in Varda’s catalog.
The images in this film are one of a kind, be it the woman dangling their legs from shipping crates inside of their own bodies or a man in a bathing suit pasted onto a dilapidated bunker. The bell-tower scene in particular has an undeniable physicality that is astonishing. Varda attempts to track her history, not quite as in depth as, The Beaches of Agnes (2008), but memory seems to have a weighty presence in her later work. She follows threads back to her beginnings in the French New Wave leading to a gut wrenching scene “with” Jean Luc-Godard. In this film, however, she seems less concerned with her own past, then a collective human consciousness shared in the community of experience. She allows her characters to ramble on the topics they’ve been asked about, her fascination is earned and genuine, no director, especially not at her age, has this passion and enthusiasm for people.
The entire film is soundtracked by gentle acoustic guitar, that provides a perfectly quaint backdrop for this very tender and modest tale. Varda and JR have no bones to pick, there is no anger or ill-will, and in this way it subverts many of the expectations placed on modern documentaries. Documentary filmmakers have become obsessed with crafting narrative instead of allowing their subjects to form the stories themselves. Faces Places is refreshing because it avoids squeezing a morale and point out of the characters, and sure the film wanders, sometimes getting a little off track, but don’t all the best road trips?
Some have called Rohmer and Chabrol the most “durable” of the New Wave, but Varda must be considered somewhere in that conversation. Varda and JR have created a film with Faces Places that champions our lives no matter how big or small. They find character and color in every topic they point their camera towards and perhaps this is their ultimate conclusion. Life as we know it is worth capturing, be it on the side of a train or at twenty four frames per second.