Faces Places, Agnès Varda and JR, 2017
Fine, you’ve dragged it out of me: I don’t like street art. It’s annoying and facile and its doyens seem the sort of self-regarding pseuds more interested in being provocative than actually interesting. As a term its affected edginess (‘not your mother’s’ art) and genesis as a sort of gentrified ‘graffiti’ (the same middlebrow sanitization that turns comics into ‘graphic novels’, pornography into ‘erotica’) irks. And it seems – more than most other mediums – particularly fertile ground for generating nonsense broadsides nobly pronouncing its relevance and importance.
Now – I stand by all of this (it is, after all, correct), but I will acknowledge that it reads a lot like the sort of bitterness that comes with age and years of perceiving the largely widespread success of something you don’t like as a personal slight. Time has not, in this way, so befallen cinéma français totem Agnès Varda, who is, frankly, an absolute delight of a person at 88, and begins Faces Places telling her co-star and co-director, French photographer and street artist JR, everything about his work that has excited and inspired her.
He’s a bouncing, energetic, unmistakably youthful sort who sought out Varda at her home on the Rue Daguerre in Paris with the express purpose of artistic collaboration. This isn’t supplemental context or production detail: we’re told all of this in the film, as it slowly shuffles into itself, muddling about in vignettes depicting how they didn’t meet, before finally arriving at how they did, and settling in at Varda’s home to discuss what they now, having met, should do about the film they’re making.
If this all sounds a bit twee, that’s probably because it is, a bit – but it’s mostly the good, effortlessly endearing, subtly revelatory strain: their opposing shapes and poignant whimsy giving them a look that’s more Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin than Amelie. There’s a clearly playful, autobiographical tone to the film, intentional but unforced, and it beds itself neatly in these peppered exchanges regarding their plans, their hopes and ideas.
An early encounter, on the road in JR’s custom rigged van (a motorized photo booth that outputs huge, poster sized prints), settles their purpose. They meet a woman called Jeanine in a mining town in the North of France. She’s the only remaining denizen, clinging on to her home – and by association her past – against the council order to knock down the entire tenement. Varda and JR, rallied by her passion, principle, history, construct a series of enormous photo prints (of her, and of older pictures of the town’s mining community) pasted in tribute along the façades of the condemned houses.
So becomes their medium and pattern of approach – Varda recognizing the thrill of happening upon remarkable people “by chance”, and resolving it to be the guiding principle of their film. There are moments when this witting laissez faire can cause the film to flounder a little – the usually sage and breezy becoming the just somewhat breezy – but to start charting courses would lead things further astray. Lightness and accident is their avenue of inquiry into the towns they visit, and they stick to it – even if that means the occasional exchange that seems only to skim the surface.
What’s always laid bare are the roots of the images they make, their relationship to the community. Artists typically like to cover their tracks: surreal images (of which Faces Places has plenty: a freight train plastered with eyes and toes, fish swimming on the outside of a water tower, women sitting inside their own hearts) are, compelling in their enigma, never thought to be enriched by our witness to their germination. But this is precisely the rare joy of Faces Places – a film that delights in revealing the color and texture of individual lives, and in the collaborative creative process through which these lives are eulogized. It’s both an exercise in participatory public art and an ode to people.
When asked herself, Varda describes the project as “about imagination” and its process. That word – imagination – comes to represent a lot: an extension of life; a product of memory; a means of conferring humanity. Through it we’re linked to the film’s other focus: Varda’s past, present and mortality. The photographs she produces with JR allow her to remember faces, “so that they don’t fall down the holes in my memory.” As the title suggests (in French, Visages Villages) the human face is a value in itself (one recalls Varda’s 1976 Daguerréotypes – another very Varda piece of wordplay, and a film of portraits, of the shopkeepers on the Rue Daguerre).
Towards the end, Varda is looking for a direct route back. She arranges a meeting with Jean-Luc Godard, contemporary of the French Nouvelle Vague, and friend – although one she hasn’t seen for five years. This is the first time Varda and JR have known who they’re going to meet and, as if symbolically, the old camera van and the winding village roads are junked for the on-rails determinism of the TGV.
Naturally, things don’t work out as expected – chance returns to the picture, scuppering plans, forcing the duo back to the heart of their film: its sensation of the moment, of seeing the people around us, and, yes, of seeing the past too – not in reaching backwards for it but in finding it in the instant, the new, the present. Together they’re an embodiment of the spirit, generationally at odds but reconciling a shared vision – and reckoning surely more gamely with the workings of time than those of us harboring silly grudges about street art. JR, incidentally, I hear prefers the self-styled portmanteau photograffeur. It’s Varda’s kind of pun.
Verdict: worth a look.