Dir: Agnès Varda | Panorama | Spotlight on France | France | 2017 | 90 mins
Faces Places follows the humorous and somewhat idiosyncratic duo of Agnès Varda and the sunglassed photographer JR as they travel through France from rural villages to an industrial dockyard. They penetrate the lives of the inhabitants while photographing them and pasting their oversized portraits on just about any surface that takes their fancy.
As is consistent with Varda’s style, Faces Places succeeds in interweaving the reality of the everyday with an often purposefully forced narrative. Focusing the audience on the two sides of everything, she describes early in the film, during an obviously staged dialogue with JR, how chance is her best assistant. It is this combination of spontaneity and regimented script which drives the light-hearted progression of the film, a progression which is happy to jump around with a general lack of chronological awareness.
Her constant use of shots through windows and doors highlights the ethnographic nature of her work. The camera attempts to enter into the lives of the people the duo interview and it is usually warmly received. In fact, the reaction of many of the interviewees to their blown-up portraits can’t help but move the audience, the emotion is genuine and unfettered.
Yet, the director’s penchant for innovative cinematography reminds us that this is still a fabricated framework. As JR selects one of Varda’s old photos of deceased photographer and friend Guy Bourdin to paste onto the side of a fallen German bunker, Varda remarks “it’s like a photo-en-abyme.”This phrase can describe the function of the entire film as a constant reference to the photographic medium — pointing to its versatile nature as well as its ability to capture and alter reality.
In fact, this alteration, or indeed subjective perception, of reality is what Varda really succeeds in portraying. The narrative emphasis on her failing eyesight and JR’s refusal to remove his sunglasses culminates in a conversation about the unique visions we each have of the world. Faces Places excels in capturing family anecdotes and personal details, it highlights the heterogeneity of human experience while maintaining a sense of warm solidarity between us all.