The labor of love of two eminently lovable artists, Faces Places follows the wonderfully dynamic duo of cinema legend Agnès Varda and enigmatic street artist and photographer JR as they travel up and down the French countryside, looking for people to photograph with stories to share. These black-and-white photos are blown up larger than life and pasted on local buildings — a farmer standing tall on the side of his barn, miners’ portraits three stories high against the brick row houses they once lived in. While Varda previously claimed that her 2008 autobiographical documentary The Beaches of Agnès would be her last, 10 years later this one serves as proof we should be very glad she changed her mind.
Faces Places is the sort of feel-good film that manages to stay on the right side of the fine line between heartwarming and cheesy. There is something fundamentally positive and joyful about the doc, but when the situation arises, it doesn’t shy away from heavier content or negative emotions either, and is all the stronger for it. The subsequent popularity of one subject’s photograph leaves her regretting her involvement in the project, and her concerns are given the same weight and validation as the more positive reactions of other participants. Varda’s reminiscences over the people she’s known and the things she’s done over her long and incredibly accomplished life are shown as being the bittersweet musings that they are, especially Varda’s long and complicated friendship with Jean-Luc Godard, one of the dwindling number of Varda’s contemporaries still alive.
As with Varda’s earlier docs, one of Faces Places’ great strengths is its levity and creativity. Even amongst well-regarded nonfiction films, there is an unfortunate tendency within the genre to forget that documentary cinema can still be cinematic, not just feature-length audiovisual educational material. This film embraces the performative nature of artistic expression and storytelling, mixing more traditional documentary content — interviews, footage of their artistic process — with staged vignettes, usually of a humorous nature; one sequence depicts several different ways Varda and JR didn’t meet; another scene features a woman receiving a “letter” from a postman and it’s a literal letter, as in “L.”
The history of the relationship between documentarians and their subjects is a long and messy one. The various ethical and even metaphysical quandaries posed by the nature of depicting “reality” on camera are an ongoing debate that has even become the subject of a number of docs, such as Casting JonBenet. While Faces Places doesn’t specifically discuss the issue, it does handle the nature of the filmmaker/subject relationship in an interesting way. By putting themselves as much in the spotlight as their subjects — a move that in other hands could perhaps end up seeming somewhat narcissistic — Varda and JR actually make the power dynamic between the two feel a little more balanced.
The road trip premise that ties the entire doc together is stretched a little thin at times — at one point, they paste images of fish on a water tower, which doesn’t seem specific to local people and their stories in the way the other stops on their journey do, just a simple joke about how it’s a water tower and fish live in water. Another stop is Le Havre, which is far from a village — a situation that Varda clearly isn’t thrilled with, though JR manages to convince her through the technicality that the dockworkers at Le Havre were their own small, separate, village-like community. But overall, the film retains enough of a connecting thread to avoid seeming messy while the relative looseness of the structure suits its whimsical tone.
On the whole, Faces Places is many things—a meditation on art and memory, a road trip movie, a portrait of a charming intergenerational friendship. Even with its many layers, the film remains light and playful, a wonderful reminder that documentaries can be both joyous and deep at the same time.