Why would the French photographer JR and filmmaker Agnès Varda paste a giant image of her feet on the side of a train?
“The point is the power of imagination,” Varda tells us.
Faces Places, the latest documentary from Agnès Varda, is concerned with the stories that we all have to tell. In this new adventure, Varda combines her efforts with those of a much younger, unlikely companion—the 34-year-old French photographer and environmental artist known as JR—as they set out across different regions of France, talking to the locals and taking their pictures. JR’s van is equipped with a photobooth that prints out large-scale copies of the photographs on the other side. With this contraption, the duo creates portraits large enough to cover entire façades of buildings.
The portraits range from headshots of locals on the ruins of an old village, to an enormous, life-size recreation of three dock workers’ wives on the side of a towering stack of shipping containers. In each instance, the exceptional creativity and craftsmanship of JR fuses with Varda’s exceptional ability to get people to open up to her, resulting in touching, heart-warming experiences. A number of the people they encounter are moved to tears in gratitude, some embarrassed, and many fascinated.
The scale to which Varda and JR magnify and honor these “ordinary” people as if they were historic figures emphasizes this film’s role in pointing out the heroism and the beauty of daily life. These people include a mailman who has moved from his routes on a bicycle to a mail truck, an eccentric, loving hermit named Pony who spends his time making artwork out of recycled bottle caps, and a woman named Jeanine who is the lone holdout in a row of old miners’ homes that’s soon to be demolished. They speak to a dairy farmer who burns off the horns of his goats to promote productivity, and later to a different one who lets her goats roam free and milks them by hand, condemning acts like burning off their horns as wrong and unnatural. (To honor this woman, they put a portrait of a goat with horns on the wall of a local factory.) They speak to a local waitress and paste her portrait looking out wistfully to sea on the side of a building, giving her fame in the local community.
The spontaneity and improvisation of the project gives Varda and JR full artistic reign to do with it what they wish. Their separate visions merge into one, and throughout the film they gradually develop a strong connection through the people they interact with and the conversations between them along the way.
It’s through this connection, and the seemingly random occurrences with the people of France, that Varda conveys a poignant and challenging wealth of emotion and ideas. Faces Places gets at the temporality of our lives, the function of memory, the importance of interpersonal relationships, and the link between art and life. Running beneath the film’s surface is an undercurrent of what it means to have loved and lost, and to love again. Varda’s ability to weave these themes into a framework that, on the surface, seems so light and offhand is truly incredible. At 89, Varda has become such a master of humanistic exploration, the project appears effortless.
Ultimately, Faces Places is significant. The film’s focus on the working class and those who, without this undertaking, would never get their time in the spotlight, reveals and ridicules our present-day obsession with the celebrity and the 1 percent. We’re addicted to the fame and glamour of those at the top of the totem pole, but is it the people we truly celebrate or some perfected mirage that celebrity status radiates? Faces Places is so relevant to the society we’re becoming because it shows how imperative the real lives of real people are to the world.
And as millions of people “keep up with the Kardashians” and read the National Enquirer every day, it would serve us all well to remember that fact. “Each face tells a story,” Varda says. And it’s our privilege to read them.
Featured Image by Le Pacte