Friday, December 22, 2017

A Moving Gallery: Faces Places

Agnès Varda and JR in Faces Places.

On the surface, Faces Places, the new documentary gem co-directed by famed Belgian-born French filmmaker Agnès Varda (Cléo From 5 to 7, The Gleaners and I) and the French artist/photographer who goes by the name JR -- wherein the pair traverses the French countryside taking pictures of various villagers, blowing them up and then pasting them on walls and buildings -- may not seem like much. But despite its seemingly simple skein, Faces Places is a remarkable document, a poignant rumination on tradition, modernity, mortality, love, perception, imagery and many other subjects. It’s a film that you won’t soon forget.

Faces Places, whose English language title is very close to its French one (Visages villages), begins with an anecdote, from 1963, when Varda convinced her famous Swiss/French colleague, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Weekend) to take off his sunglasses, showing his eyes in one of her photos, something he rarely did. Godard was 33 at the time and, coincidentally so was JR during the filming of Faces Places, a linkage that plays a part throughout the film as the artist also likes to hide his "soul" behind dark sunglasses. (Godard figures prominently in the latter part of the film, too.) Varda herself, now 89, is coming to the end of her career, as JR is essentially just getting started, and the two, having become friends, decide on a road trip, utilizing JR’s unique art and Varda’s own photographic skills to create a hybrid documentary that plays to both their strengths, her sharp eye and his specific talents.

JR’s shtick, if one can call it that, may not appear imaginative but there’s something about oversized photos, plastered and affixed to the outside of barns and houses, that resonates, whether it’s that of a woman, the last one on her block to resist leaving her home to make way for a new development, or the wives of dock workers, looming large on top of the containers their husbands load. The former, called a resister by JR, now seems heroic; the latter are rescued from anonymity in a world, of the docks, where women are rarely front and centre. (One of the wives, who drives a big rig, is the only female among 80 men who do so, which Varda tartly says "sounds about right.”) The photos of the miners, who lived in the same houses that are soon to be demolished, are a reminder of a time when their jobs were so prominent. But another picture, of a young man Varda once knew, whose visage has been put upon a fallen-over German pillbox from World War Two on the Normandy beach, is quickly erased by the tides, which seems apt but in this case it also seems an affront to history. (Art is not always neutral; this was the one JR creation that I thought inappropriate and in bad taste.) That of a local farmer, however, works – as someone of his profession is often a link between the rural and urban worlds, each dependent on the other. But the choice of him as subject is not predictable, as he is in thrall to the new technology of the modern tractor; in effect, it does all the work, while he just puts a "passenger" in the vehicle rather than guiding it as farmers did in the past. That push/pull between past and present is a constant in Faces Places, whether it’s Varda reminiscing about her classic feature Cléo From 5 to 7 or breaking down in tears as she tells a story about Godard and her late, beloved husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). But only a filmmaker would reference the infamous eyeball slashed by a razor scene in Luis Buñuel’s silent classic short Un Chien Andalou when getting her own eyes examined in Faces Places. (Despite her eye disease and her needing the use of a cane, Varda certainly belies her age.)

Of course, it’s the genuine, touching connection between Varda and JR that mostly propels the film. They bicker like an old married couple, especially when he chides her for bugging him about not showing her his eyes. (Eventually he gives in but that action plays out in an unexpected way.) They’re also at ease with each other, as he teases her about her love of naked men; he is a sweet young man comfortable with the elderly, as is evident when the duo visits his 100-year-old grandmother. The pair also visits the grave of the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, another nod to the photographic past by practitioners of the present. (Amusingly, they recreate a scene from one of Godard’s lesser-known but best films Band of Outsiders [Bande à part, 1964] when JR wheels steer Varda around in a wheelchair in a seemingly deserted part of the Louvre.)

Yet it’s the film’s conclusion that reaches most deeply into the soul. Nearing the end -- of the movie, and perhaps of her life -- Varda suggests one last trip to one final village, this time in Switzerland and the residence of the semi-reclusive 87-year-old Godard. She frames it as a catch-up visit with an old friend whom she hasn’t seen in five years. But those viewers knowledgeable about French cinema know, too, that Varda and Godard are the last of their breed, the revolutionary artists who changed cinema as we know it. Godard’s New Wave colleagues (François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette) have all passed on as have Varda’s fellow filmmakers from the related Left Bank film movement (Demy, Henri Colpi, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais). It’s just the two of them now, so when the proposed meeting doesn’t turn out as expected, one feels a sting of pain that the happy ending one wants doesn’t occur. At best, it’s bittersweet. (I won’t reveal what happens but if you know anything about Godard it’s not really a surprise.)

This may also be Varda’s last film, an observation she makes almost offhandedly in Faces Places. I say may be as she intimated that she was packing it in in her last film, the fine 2008 documentary The Beaches of Agnès (Les plages d'Agnès), which centered around her turning 80 and looking back on her storied life and career. Yet nine years later, blessedly, she’s still around. But if Faces Places does turn out to be her swan song – with part of her visage immortalized by JR in a final tribute – this sublime gem is as fine a send-off as one could ever hope for.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where on October 6 he began teaching a course on fact-based movies and why they often take liberties with history. He also finished teaching a course in October on The Exciting and Provocative Cinema of Israel in London, Ontario.

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