In one of the most memorable moments of Faces Places, French New Wave director Agnès Varda races down a hallway of The Lourve in a wheelchair pushed by photographer and muralist JR. Varda names the artists behind the works as they fly past them, while JR dashes around lounges and jumps gaily in the air.
More than a recreation of the iconic scene from Godard’s Band of Outsiders, the moment is an emphatic embodiment of what makes this unique, almost indescribable documentary such an accomplishment.
Faces Places is, on the surface, a road trip. The documentary follows Varda and JR – an odd but charming duo – as they travel through normal villages in France, meeting ordinary people and capturing their experiences in images so as “they don’t fall into the hole of memory”.
The pair travel around in JRs mobile photo studio, making their way through such simple but powerful locations including a goat farm, and the beaches of Normandy, and turning them into art.
Brought together by a mutual admiration of each other’s work, Varda and JR share a soulful dynamic not all that different from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s in the Trip to series. Varda, at 89, brings a wealth of both personal and professional experience to the collaboration. The only woman director of the French New Wave moment of the 50s and 60s, her feminist values bring new perspective and opportunity to JRs all-male team. JR, on the other hand, brings vibrancy. From behind his dark sunglasses (which he never takes off, much to the admonishment of Varda), he goads her to make the most of the journey, no matter how often she treats it with a sense of finality.
Indeed, finality weaves its way all throughout Faces Places. The documentary begins with Varda and JR visiting a row of historical miners’ houses set to be demolished, before heading to a farm where the farmer calls himself a “passenger” to the technology driving agricultural development.
It’s at the halfway point that finality takes a more personal twist, when Varda reveals she has contracted an eye disease which is destroying her vision. “Every new person I meet feels like the last one”, she laments to JR. The comment seems less directed at the people they’re meeting on their journey and more at JR himself, highlighting the strength of their bond, though contradicting the spirit in which she approaches their work.
Without spoiling anything, Faces Places ends with Varda’s decision to visit Godard and reflect on their shared history. What occurs, you will have to experience for yourself, but the aftermath deserves to be remembered as one of the most extraordinary pieces of documentary filmmaking ever. It’s raw, beautiful, heartwarming, and worth the cost of admission alone.