Monday, April 09, 2018

"Faces, Places" ("Visages, Villages"): review

"Faces, Places" (titled "Visages, Villages" in French) is a French-language documentary from 2017 written and directed by 88-year-old filmmaker Agnès Varda and street artist JR (pronounced "zhee-air" in French), who met and decided to collaborate on a road-trippy project in which Varda would film while JR did his street-art thing, taking photos of people and objects (mostly people), printing them out giant-size, and plastering those images to the sides of buildings, or onto water tanks, shipping containers, etc. JR has been doing this as a tribute to the people he meets, and he delights in meeting new people. He and Varda strike up a cozy, amicable relationship as they travel through rural France in their big truck, which contains the cameras and printing equipment necessary for the project. Along the way, they discuss their respective philosophies of life, and as time passes, a tender friendship forms. The documentary—and it's Varda who takes the role of documentarian—allows us viewers a slice-of-life look at the sorts of French folk we don't normally see: the goat farmers who refuse to cut off the goats' horns (despite the risk that the goats might hurt each other), the old woman who refuses to leave an old apartment project because the place is "too full of memories," the dock workers who deal with shipping containers all day at Le Havre (and their feisty wives), the town mayor who looks with grim satisfaction at the enormous World War II-era German bunker that was deliberately sent off a nearby cliff onto the neighboring beach—where it landed, comically, upside-down.

Agnès Varda was originally part of the French New Wave, along with Jean-Luc Godard, who is a year younger than she is. We see tantalizing clips of some of her work, and the final segment of the film involves a trek to visit Godard at his residence (I won't spoil what happens, except to say that it's bittersweet). Varda herself comes off as a lively personality upset that her body is failing her. She most bemoans the fading of her sight, but at the same time, she demands that JR take off his infamous sunglasses so that she may have a good look at his unobscured face. JR resists and resists: his glasses are part of his look. But however fussy JR might be about his glasses, and however many times the pair might needle each other about this or that artistic detail, it's obvious, by the end of the film, that the bond between the young and the old artist is strong, and will last well beyond Varda's passing.

I found this to be a profoundly touching documentary. The dialogue between the two artists is far too cute to be unscripted, but that artifice didn't bother me because, as the two traveled across France, it was obvious that the people they encountered along the way weren't actors; the lives we were glimpsing were utterly authentic. I have to say, on a personal note, that I felt a deep pang while listening to those farmers and townspeople, and while watching the French countryside roll by: I miss France. I really do. I miss its people and the natural beauty. One of these days, I have to get back to France to recharge certain spiritual batteries that got depleted long ago. (I also learned a ton of vocabulary while watching the film, especially when some old ex-miners were talking about their experiences from decades earlier—the clothes they wore, the arcane equipment they used, etc. All of that was new to me. I need to rewatch the documentary, take notes, and make some vocab flash cards.)

"Faces, Places" preserves, sort of, the rhyme scheme of the original French title, "Visages, Villages," but the English is not a translation of the French, as you can see for yourself. The word Places is much more generic and abstract than is Villages, and in fact, the two artists did spend most of their time passing from village to village. The film has been structured by Varda as a sort of random road movie, with Godard as only an incidental destination at the end because, well, all trips must end somewhere. But as most artists understand, it's the getting-there that is at least as important as the destination.

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