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Faces Places (or in French: Visages Villages) comes equipped with so much detailed history and deeply embedded feeling between its characters that the winsomeness and tragedy almost writes itself. Equally the result of both staggering good fortune and rigorous creation, Faces Places is a testament as to how documentaries are just as capable of discovering great stories as they are in constructing them. The film features prominently two subjects—one a confident up-and-comer JR (his real name is as of today still unknown) and his luminary, the lovely French New Wave icon Agnes Varda who at 88 years-old seems more alive than ever—both of whom breathe life into this potentially gimmicky venture
Their excursion across France take several detours—some of which include a defunct mining village, a chemical factory and a goat farm—and upon talking to its residents, learning about their passions, hopes, regrets and even some of the town’s mostly forgotten but firmly ingrained history, the two set out to make them the subject of their newest artistic endeavour: to photograph the residents and paste the giant murals of their images onto the local architecture.
The results of JR and Varda’s project is intensely satisfying but also reflective, asking profound questions about the nature of the image and art itself, be it to the artist, the observer or, ultimately, to the subject themselves. By covering different people from separate angles and perspectives we’re shown that the absorption of great art becomes not only a thing of personal experience, but a democratic gesture. After plastering the giant murals onto the local homes and buildings of the residents’ township, the documentary goes to lengths to emphasize on the residents, and not one reaction can be described predictable; in one of their endeavors a café employee—becoming the most recognizable face in town—finds herself unable to handle even the minor celebrity JR and Varda’s mural gives her.
This less-than-auspicious outcome confers yet another important question normally asked of great filmmakers: is their art a selfless or selfish undertaking? To see great art come alive, whether as film, image or literature, innately invites the attention of others, but the art is still no less a personal assignment. To find the link that brings the art and the spectator together is the very odyssey Faces Places takes.
Perhaps the most fascinating subjects are the film’s primary ones, Agnes Varda and JR themselves. One’s a short, elderly Belgian with an air both unassuming and inquisitive, and the other a tall, lanky Parisian with a gregarious, almost freestyle approach to life and art. Although the relationship seems built off jokey contrasts, the wise old crone and the restless man-child, there’s seems to be airs of beauty and vulnerability that arise from their odd couple sensibility, from an artist whose lust for life along with her heath slowly fades to an artist with a emerging, undying need to express as much of himself.
Despite the documentary’s delights, going to great lengths to create breathtaking photography and showing the finished result in all its perfected glory, the film works best as a portrait of the artists themselves. JR and Agnes Varda, coming from two different perspectives of the world, lend their real-life backgrounds and personalities to the film’s otherwise winsome narrative of emotional self-discovery, providing this cinematic flight of fancy with genuine substance. There’s a brilliantly conceived motif in the film regarding Agnes Varda’s failing eyesight and her frustration with JR’s almost religious attachment to his sunglasses. As it recurs some may brush it off as lighthearted quip but reveals itself as something overpoweringly heartfelt: two very different artist with very different ways of looking at the world. Nevertheless, with their combined visions for the documentary, both JR and Agnes Varda seem to share the same vision for an artist’s France, not a mere inspiration in which art may root and grow but a canvas in which art can be created.