Faces, Places. The amazing journey of Agnès Varda and photographer JR

March 24, 2018

Considering her eighty years of age, Varda it’s almost like a cultural institution by herself as one of the first Nouvelle Vague promoters. Her contributions to cinema are invaluable and the fact she released another new film last year was a gift to the world: Faces Places, a documentary film she co-directed alongside the French photographer JR, which was recently nominated for an Oscar.

Her friend and companion for this new adventure is a young visual artist who works half-anonymously, always wearing dark glasses that he never takes off. Together these two artists from very different generations set out on a journey trough the French countryside visiting small villages with one peculiar purpose: to photograph, print in paper and later expose big-scale portraits of the inhabitants.

 

 

With the help of a team of supporting artists, Varda and JR’s work seems easy as is endearing. The result is a humanizing labor of love and faith in the name of art. One of the documentary’s most enjoyable aspects is that it allows us to appreciate how the different people portrayed react when they see themselves on the pictures. They become the rare figure of being spectator and subject of contemplation at the same time.  

This itinerant exposition becomes a touching reminder that is the ordinary people who define the places where they live. In fact, part of the charm in JR and Varda’s artistic concept lies in the chance of bringing art into rural context, places usually unrelated to the vibrant cultural life of the cities. The inhabitants of this rural world might not be art experts but they receive these works with the gratitude of a sensible art lover. Varda and JR then learn something essential: You don’t need experts to recognize beauty wherever it appears.

 

Some of the villages visited for this singular pair correspond to significant places in Varda’s life. Her anecdotes add an extra layer, including stories about Varda’s marriage with French director Jacques Demy. It is as an invitation to vindicate and rescue her legacy for the future. Varda and JR association is more than an artistic collaboration.

It’s a friendship that transcends limitations of gender or age. JR comes along with Varda in her medical tests and later the photographer put giant prints of her almost blind eyes or her small foot in some of the places they visited. JR believes that now Varda’s eyes will go to places she otherwise couldn’t see.

In "Faces Places" there’s a feeling of innocence and wonder, joy and sadness, in every new step of the journey that includes a visit to Henri Cartier Bresson’s grave or a race inside the Louvre museum. 

The most painful event in the film occurs when Jean-Luc Goddard decides to not welcome Varda to his house when she wants to visit her longtime friend to introduce him her new friend JR. She then cries in front of the camera and is really sad a moving when we see her like this in such an unpredictable episode.  

 

 

Meanwhile, in another sequence, a big portrait of deceased Varda’s friend Guy Bordin is posted on an abandoned bunker on the sea shore. As a symbolic action, the waves of the sea gradually erase the image. All these big images combine the power of photography and pieces of architecture that struggle against oblivion. Maybe, someday movies will also disappear from Earth. This acceptance of death and of the temporary nature of images accentuates the work of both artists, especially when we become aware that perhaps Faces Places would be Varda’s final film.

In another beautiful moment, after a long insistence, JR shows himself to Varda without the dark glasses. Only her half-blind eyes can see him directly, but she can barely see his friend’s eyes. This compels us to reconsider everything we have witnessed until now. This is the work of someone who can’t admire her own movie in the way we can. Faces Places provide a memorable testament from two generations trying to find new forms of composing remarkable images in a time tired of the dubious presumption that everything has already been seen before.

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