The 88 year old Belgian auteur Agnes Varda maybe losing her sight but it is very clear from her awe-inspiring new film FACES PLACES that she hasn’t lost any of her legendary vision. For once she has teamed up with another photographer called JR who is a French hipster visual artist who has established an impressive reputation for his oversized photographic installations.
This odd couple that seem an unlikely pair, turn out to be a perfect match. JR has an irreverent sharp wit and loves to tease his new collaborator, but what is quickly evident is the immense respect they both have for each other’s work which makes this venture such an ideal co-operative affair.
JR is used to traveling in his custom photo booth van that can print out oversized images in a matter of seconds. With no real set ideas or plan in place, he drives Agnes into the French countryside as she says ‘chance has always been my asset’. In the North they come across a small village with a row of deserted coal miners houses that are about to be demolished when the lone hold-out inhabitant finally leaves. They cover the whole of their front walls with current photographs they took and mixed with old mining images that they blow up, with the piece de resistance a portrait of the last inhabitant that covers her whole house.
What is particularly striking about this, and all the other projects throughout this documentary, is the pair’s genuine empathy and understanding of their subject’s situations. It resulted in works that delighted locals as it was a testimony to their own way of life, which in many cases was changing all to rapidly.
JR was always looking for large walls of any kind as a canvas for their work, and one of the most fascinating ones he came across was a vast concrete bunker that fallen off a cliff on to a deserted operation. He and Agnes chose one of her early photographs of a young Guy Bourdin to be blown up and plastered over the bunker all of which had to be done in a race against the tide. The finished piece is stunning, but by the next day it has of course disappeared as the ocean has wiped the block clean.
Agnes has always had a natural affinity to women throughout all her films, so when JR takes her to the docks at Le Havre …..which he claims is just ‘another type of village’ ….. it is the wives of the dockers who become the stars of their impressive new installation. With their images plastered over the sides of several shipping containers stacked on top of each other, they form what Agnes calls is her ‘totem pole’, with the stunning result that has to be seen to be believed.
As Agnes and JR are mutually curious about each other, she takes him on a surprise train ride to Switzerland to meet Jean-Luc Godard who had once been great friend of her and her late husband, and who had figured a great deal in her life in the past. On the journey she warns JR that the eccentric Godard could be very odd at times, but even she was shocked and bitterly disappointed when they arrived at his house at the appointed time and he refused to open the door.
‘He’s a dirty rat’ she angrily exclaims, and in an effort to cheer his friend up JR does the one thing she has been begging him to do since they met, and he finally removed his sunglasses so she could see his eyes.
This wee gem of a movie is a sheer joy in every single frame, and when this slightly magical journey ends, the only nagging question, is why on earth didn’t Agnes ever get to meet JR before.