There’s a scene in Faces, Places, the new documentary film Agnès Varda has made in collaboration with photographer and mural artist JR, in which this ostensibly odd couple – a 65-year age gap exists between them – chat with a group of male French dock workers. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Varda’s work that she instinctively asks the men if she can meet their wives, and before long the two artists are introduced to the three relevant women, two of whom – like their husbands – work on the docks.
The basic premise of the film is that Varda and JR travel around France meeting people (generally those who live and/or work in rural or smaller communities), before taking their pictures and then printing large images that are subsequently flyposted onto buildings or large objects. Having met the three women, and feeling suitably inspired by them, Varda and JR ask them to pose for portraits and then decide to plaster the larger-than-life pictures onto a huge stack of cargo containers, with the women themselves eventually emerging from behind the doors of container stacked high at the very top. It’s an extremely powerful visual statement – made in conjunction with a small group of people who appear to work for JR – in a film that’s littered with them, and yet it’s also completely indicative of the film’s humanism, the makers’ genuine interest in ordinary working class people and the rather likeable way that they are lionised in ways that also brings attention to their surroundings and the histories of certain places.
For most of the film Varda and JR travel around in his van, which has a large-scale printer adapted to fit in the back. They meet farmers, people from former mining communities, retirees and young children along the way. As they do, the documentary slowly evolves into a work that’s also about the power of images, as well as society, the influence of political decisions taken elsewhere, mortality and the act of seeing. One thread that’s weaved throughout pertains to Varda’s deteriorating eyesight, while in another Varda regularly chastises the younger man for his desire to ‘hide’ behind his sunglasses at all times, something that occasionally causes a small degree of friction between the two. (JR, like the English artist Banksy, places much value on his own anonymity.)
Despite the odd minor clash between Varda and JR – she quickly puts him in his place when he patronises her – Faces, Places is very much a feelgood film: the two artists make for an extremely sympathetic, likeable duo, and the obvious differences between them – age, height, etc – soon become irrelevant in the face of their shared respect for and interest in others. As well as their time together talking to people – which sometimes recalls Varda’s earlier The Gleaners & I – we’re treated to lots of footage of the pair travelling together, hanging out in Paris and even dashing across the Louvre in a light-hearted homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part.
It comes as a surprise, then, when Godard himself casts a rather unfortunate shadow on the film late on. JR arranges a surprise visit to the house of the notoriously reclusive director, who was one of Varda’s New Wave colleagues and someone who she considers a long-term friend, even though she hasn’t seen him in years, but the meeting and the trip becomes something of a non-event — grinding uncomfortably to a halt as a result of what appears to be mean-spirited pettiness on the part of Godard, perhaps driven by a rather unfortunate mixture of insecurity and thoughtlessness. Given what we’ve seen before it seems like a particularly cruel act to reduce Varda to tears, but her positive, forward-thinking outlook is irrepressible, and the male director’s actions ultimately seem like an irrelevance as she figuratively picks herself up, dusts herself down and gets on with her life. The simple fact is that nobody can stop the positivity that radiates from Varda and from this wonderful film, surely one of 2018’s finest. (****½)