A kind of spiritual sequel to The Gleaners and I, Faces Places once again sees Agnes Varda setting out to document and pay tribute to rural France, this time with the aid of conceptual artist JR, whose work consists of taking photographs of local people that he encounters, printing out magnified copies on an adhesive surface, and then attaching them to structures and objects in the environments where he took the photographs. Equipped with a van that has been fitted out for this purpose, he and Varda trace their way through all the parts of France we rarely see, allowing the buildings and landscapes that they encounter to speak for themselves. Using their murals as the stimuli to collective memories from small communities and solitary individuals, they leave a series of odd monuments in their wake, as fragile and transitory as they are beautiful and imposing. For the most part, JR takes care of the logistics, while Varda deals with the human side of the drama, in yet another instance of her curious and compassionate drive “towards villages, towards simple landscapes, towards faces.” While there is some rapport between Varda and JR, the film doesn’t really hang on it, thanks in part to JR’s omnipresent sunglasses, which initially feel like a bit of an affectation, but work quite well in the long run to prevent him distracting us too much from Varda’s role in the film, and to more or less subsume him into his art works in the process.
Insofar as Varda and JR do have a rapport, it tends to be presented as something retrospective, a relationship that only came about through the shared experience of making the fim, and was only solidifed once the film was completed, as evinced in the periodic scenes of them sitting together looking back over the landscapes they have modified. With dialogue that has been clearly been overdubbed later on, these short scenes tend to make JR himself feel like another person Varda meets on the road – and vice versa – despite the fact that they are travelling together, which in turn imbues their journey with all the tremulous curiosity and contingency of the people and communities they encounter. Apart from that, the few interactions between the two that take place outside of the journey – or before the journey – are dealt with in a highly stylised register, most beautifully in a scene in which they recreate the iconic moment in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande a Part in which the lead characters run through the Louvre as rapidly as they can, except that in this case Varda is in a wheelchair and JR is pushing her along. While this necessarily slows the pace a bit, it also allows them a bit more latitude to swerve and bend their way through the gallery, in a quite lyrical and moving depiction of Varda’s relation to the French New Wave, which has always stood at this oblique remove, and which culminates, towards the end of Faces Places, with a assignation with Godard that Godard himself fails, somewhat ambiguously, to show up for.
Between those two poles, Varda continues her career-long project of dissociating the roving, restless, periptatetic spirit of the New Wave from the urbane Parisian backdrops of her male counterparts, and instead locating it amidst working-class, rural and minor communities. Reminding the audience, at the beginning, that her “idea has always been to be with people at work,” she takes us through a cross-section of rural France, moving from solitary farmers, to small agricultural communities, to abandoned housing projects, to factory towns. That said, “cross-section” is perhaps not the right term for the spontaneous curiosity of Varda’s eye and camera, nor for the generosity of Varda’s conversational style and register, both of which are interested, first and foremost, in taking the people and places she encounters on their own terms, rather than trying to immediately contain them within a particular aesthetic or political schema. In a kind of cinephilic serendipity, that tends to lead Varda towards places where cinema has flourished far away from the bourgeois comforts of French urban life – such as Chateau-Arnaud, where the cinema continues to be the main source of entertainment for factory workers – and turns even the most incidental or disposable of vistas into an opportunity for cinephilic rapture, as evinced in a series of lyrical interludes – wind in a tree, sunflowers by the side of the road – that rediscover a cinematic potentiality in landscapes conventionally ignored by French cinema.
While it might shy away from – or elude – grand political statements, then, Varda’s cinephilic curiosity quickly comes to feel like a kind of political gesture in itself – the precondition needed to imagine a version of French cinema that evolved in rural, working-class communities (as many of its innovative moments did) and that still has a significant audience in rural, working-class communities. Amidst the shifting sameness of the French agricultural landscape, and the omnipresent farm machinery, Varda discerns something like a genuine working-class cinema that is entirely alien to the version of French cinema distributed abroad, albeit a working-class cinema that she can only approach obliquely, and by eschewing any claim to critical detachment or objective omniscience herself. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that some of the most revelatory moments in the film occur quite contingently, with one of my favourites prompted by Varda and JR noticing a herd of hornless goats by the side of a quiet road. Curious about where hornless goats come from, and the purpose that they serve, the two enquire at a local farm, where their enquiry leads to an overnight stay, another mural and then, the centrepiece of the film, in the form of an extraordinary rendition of Guy Bourdin on the side of a collapsed WWII battlement station.
Key to that whole process is what might be described as an automatic or indexical approach to memory on Varda’s part, who eschews any systematic account of her own memories – as she did in The Beaches of Agnes, her almost-autobiography – but also eschews any systematic transcription of memories on the part of her subjects as well. It’s here that JR’s photographs really come to the fore, allowing the people interviewed in the film to experience the relation between their memories and the sites that produced them in a fresh and startling way, disrupting any clearly linear connection between past and present in the process. The result might be described as a picaresque approach to time, as Varda offers memory as something that is inherently photographic – or photography as something that is inherently mnemonic – only to complicate that by weaving photography in and out of much older and newer media as the film proceeds. In that sense, JR is the perfect collaborator – or at least JR’s art is the perfect canvas – insisting, as it does, that photography simply can’t be understood as the originator, or foundation, of more recent media in any straightforwardly linear or structural way either. For while photography might be at the essence of JR’s practice, the process of superimposing his photographs on structures has more in common with cinematic projection, just as the original photographic gesture becomes symbiotically fused with all the SmartPhone selfies and Instagram posts that spring up around it, with one mural racking up a million photographs in the first couple of months of its existence alone.
At the same, the tactility and plasticity with which JR – and, sometimes, Varda – apply the photographs to the walls of buildings and other structrues embeds photography itself within a much broader and more expansive array of visual arts. By the end of the film, it really feels as if there is not much distinction between any media or medium any more, and that any distinctions that held in the past were more or less arbitrary, which is perhaps why photography alternately feels like the most cutting-edge of artistic practices but also a process that is old as the landscapes themselves. In one beautiful scene, Varda and JR make a pilgrimage to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s grave, housed in an obscure location – “one of the smallest cemeteries I’ve ever seen” – deep in the heart of the French countryside, even as the process of “pasting” and “posting” JR’s photographs increasingly converge this landscape with Instagram and all the other interfaces used to share his work. That produces a series of extraordinary murals that feel at once unbelivably obscure, remote and transitory, but for those very reasons are the perfect subjects and venues for a social media landscape that fetishes impermanence, and the fleeting efforts to document impermanence. In one of the most beautiful of these, Varda and JR superimpose a photograph of Guy Bourdin onto the remains of an old seaside bunker in Normandy, working to beat the oncoming tide, which destroys the mural almost before they finish it.
In other cases, the sense of impermanence is dictated by industrial forces, as in one extraordinary sequence in which Varda interviews a number of female dockworkers about a strike, and JR organises a mural of their faces to be superimposed on a stack of shipping crates, which have to be taken down just as quickly in order for the port to return to regular operations. And in the final project, the art work itself becomes mobile, as JR superimposes Varda’s eyes and feet onto a train, which, he tells her, “will go places you’ve never seen.” As this residue of the film makes its way into the French landscape, it feels as if Varda has somehow managed to evoke and inhabit an uneven media landscape in which the earliest days of cinema – and their utopian convergence of train travel and cinema spectatorship – and the most recent digital devices are sharing the same space, and in which cinema is more alive than ever as a public art form thanks to all the different types of media publics it has to address and share its mediation with. Displacing and affirming cinema in the same breath, the film ends, appropriately, with a missed meeting with Godard, who (apparently) asks Varda to meet him at his house, only to leave a riddle for her instead that JR speculates may be his own eccentric and perverse way of “challenging the narrative structure of the film.”
The thing is, though, that Godard’s experimentalism seems almost naff by the time Varda arrives at this point, while even the brilliance of his later work seems almost heavy-handed compared to the deftness and dexterity of Varda’s touch. It’s an indication of just how much auteurism is still coded as masculine that a film like Goodbye to Language is framed as experimentalist while a film like Faces Places has tended to be described in epithets of cosiness, warmth and feel-good sentimentality. Yet Varda is, for me, the more slyly experimental of the two, immersing herself in a media landscape that at once feels ancient and futuristic, and using everything about herseld that seems ancient in turn to broker a picaresque and generous relationship with the present tense, which feels more alive here, in her small touches and tics, than in just about any film I’ve seen in the last twelve months.