Collaboration between filmmakers remains a controversial notion in cinema, primarily because viewers (and often critics) feel more comfortable attributing intent to a singular mind. The refutation of such artistic credit, however, occupies a fundamental role in Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places, in which the pair traverse the French countryside seeking memorable encounters with working-class people. The film’s French title, Visages Villages, provides a more accurate summation of their destinations and how locations help create the people who inhabit them. JR’s large prints of human faces and, sometimes, three-story printouts of faces and full-body shots, become art pieces plastered on buildings, trains, and other objects. More so than any film of Varda’s career, Faces Places testifies to the necessity of contact with the unknown as a form of collaboration unto itself and how such endeavors can, and should, encompass the spectrum of one’s mortal experiences.
Varda and JR advocate a form of communalism that, in its borderline utopian presentation, would be capable of eradicating hostility, even hatred, with the aid of open conversation and artistic imagination. What’s remarkable about Faces Places is how these sociological tenets occur through the course of both the filmmakers’ interviews and their playfulness with one another between destinations. In fact, one’s adoration for the film may depend, in part, on how much mileage one gets out of seeing Varda singing along, while cruising down a highway, to Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.” For Varda and JR, these shenanigans are part and parcel with their approach to interacting with strangers, from a man responsible for ringing his village’s church bells to the wives of dockworkers in Le Havre. The filmmakers extend the chance to collaborate with everyone they meet and thereby develop Faces Places into something approaching a manifesto for the possibility of shared happiness.
Varda’s infectious enthusiasm for various forms of discovery complements JR’s nice-guy persona, particularly in moments where their differences in age are given a central focus. JR, willing to hop onto a Ping-Pong table for a visual gag, presents the lithe spirit of an artist emboldened by his youth. Early on, Varda remarks that JR’s sunglasses remind her of Jean-Luc Godard, who only once removed his own glasses, which were his signature look, for her during a photo shoot in 1961. That JR refuses to take his glasses off becomes a running joke throughout the film, one that hits its sweetest note when they visit JR’s 100-year-old grandmother. Faces Places dances into the personal lives of its makers with an earnest concern for the range of experiences a lifetime entails. When JR remarks that Varda has seen 88 spring seasons, it’s a naturalist assessment of mortality that harmonizes with Varda’s own acceptance of life’s inevitable end. “That’ll be that,” as Varda says.
Throughout, the film develops into something approaching a manifesto for the possibility of shared happiness.
Varda’s body becomes a factor during a medical sequence in which she receives eye injections for a disease causing gradual blindness. Afterward, she remarks to JR that the procedure makes her think of Un Chien Andalou’s infamous eye-slashing shot, which Varda and JR then bracingly insert into their film for reference. The inclusion of the shot from Luis Buñuel’s film is effective as evidence that while Varda’s own vision dwindles, her personal loss of sight will never be enough to eliminate the capability cinema has to make images known to a new, still operative set of eyes. The surrealist dimension of Varda and JR’s project—of constructing images of ordinary people and erecting them as if they were grandiose monuments—offers a flipside to the violence of Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s “cut” by building new structures that tap into experimental art’s capacity to engender joy as well as shock.
The nomadic dimension of Faces Places speaks to how the photograph, and by extension cinema, allows both Varda and JR to create identities, not just memories, for themselves. When the pair visits a small cemetery where photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Martine Franck are buried, she remarks to JR that they should take a picture to commemorate the moment. Of course, Faces Places has already been doing that for them; the film itself doubles as that concretizing of time. In fact, the moment recalls Godard’s famous dictum that every fictional film is a documentary of its actors. In this case, the equation is perhaps reversed, as the documentary fictionalizes—even mythologizes—the histories of its subjects cum filmmakers.
Perhaps that’s why, even if unconsciously, Faces Places concludes with the filmmakers travelling to meet with Godard. The trip conjures wrenching emotions in Varda as she’s forced to recall not only long-ago weekends spent with Godard and his one-time muse and wife, Anna Karina, but also filmmaker Jacques Demy, her late husband. That Godard proves quite literally elusive places Varda and JR in contemplation along an oceanfront. The trajectory of their documentary has changed, but it was beholden to chance all along. As Varda says early in the film, chance has always been her best assistant. Faces Places, then, registers as a profound meditation on the compulsion some artists feel to make their work, and its completion, indistinguishable from the day-to-day actions and recollections of their own lives.