Director Agnes Varda and photographer/muralist J.R. journey through rural France and form an unlikely friendship. Faces Places is a 2017 French documentary film directed by Agnès Varda and JR. It was screened out of competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. At Cannes it won the L’Œil d’or award.
If the magnificently moving, funny, life-affirming, and altogether wonderful “Faces Places” (or, in its original language, the much smoother “Visages Villages”) is to be the 88-year-old Belgian auteur’s last film, it will be because of her failing eyesight or the inexplicable difficulty she’s had with funding her work, and not because she’s run out of things to say or novel ways to say them.
If this is to be her last film, then it will be one of cinema’s most extraordinary sendoffs, as poignant and perfect a swan song as Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” or Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love.” Never mind the fact that Miyazaki is supposedly working on another feature, or that Cannes is posthumously presenting Kiarostami’s final non-narrative work — when it comes to the truly great artists, the end is never really the end.
Indeed, notions of finality and (im)permanence cast a long shadow over “Faces Places,” which finds Varda teaming up with a semi-anonymous street photographer named JR, who serves as the film’s co-director, for a whimsical tour of the French countryside. The plan is to drive from one bucolic village to another, invite the locals to pose in the van that JR has transformed into a mobile photo booth, and paste massive print-outs of the resulting portraits onto the environments their subjects call home. Varda loves the idea, she’s compelled to “photograph faces so they don’t fall into the hole of memory.”
But while all of the people they meet are delightful characters who the film manages to milk for every ounce of their personality, Varda and JR inevitably emerge as the real stars here.
She is nearly 90; he is 34. She worked with Jean-Luc Godard; he looks like Jean-Luc Godard (and, much to Varda’s consternation, will similarly not take off his sunglasses). And yet, the movie is barely five minutes old before it’s clear that these two are a screen duo for the ages. From the charmingly animated opening credits, to the whimsical voiceover in which Varda and JR imagine all the places they might have met — cue footage of Varda dancing in a nightclub — the pair establish an instant rapport that feels too perfect to be faked. In regards to both their chemistry and its context, they come across like less competitive, more huggable versions of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan (though it’s hard to say which is which).