There won’t be a more delightful documentary in 2017 than “Faces Places,” the warm, funny, moving collaboration between French New Wave legend Agnès Varda and the photographer known as JR.
In fact, there might not be a more delightful film, period.
It is another notable milestone in the career of Varda, the diminutive director of classics like “Cléo from 5 to 7” and “Vagabond.”
In recent years, she has turned her attention to self-reflexive documentaries like 2008’s “The Beaches of Agnès.” That imaginative cinematic autobiography was expected to be Varda’s final film. Happily, this was not the case, and the result is “Faces Places.”
The concept is simple: Varda and the noted photographer and muralist JR tour the French countryside in his cheeky van, which features a photo booth and printer capable of producing giant prints.
Varda and JR are seeking faces, really — everyday folks who live their lives with dignity. As the then-88-year-old Varda puts it, her greatest desire is “to meet new faces and photograph them so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory.”
The greater goal, however, is capturing these images so they don’t fall down the holes in our collective memory.
Varda is a spirited octogenarian, while JR is a brash, likable 33-year-old whose sunglasses are omnipresent. Together, they make a memorable pair — an “odd” couple in which both individuals complement each other beautifully.
The people Varda and JR encounter on their journey are as unique and as memorable as they are. What makes them even more fascinating is the manner in which they are photographed, on large prints that are then pasted on the sides of buildings.
It’s a moving experience for many of the subjects, including the wives of dockworkers, a group of factory workers, a hard-working waitress and a farmer with a staggering workload.
“Our idea has always been to be with people, at work,” Varda says. The filmmakers find great meaning in ordinary individuals, and the results are extraordinary.
As “Faces Places” approaches the end, it takes a surprising — and unexpectedly riveting — detour. Varda announces that she and JR will go visit the great Jean-Luc Godard, whom she has known for years.
Theirs was a unique relationship, as both were essential to the New Wave. Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina even starred in a Varda-directed short film in 1961. The “Breathless” and “Contempt” director is shockingly dashing in this archival footage, especially when he removes his sunglasses.
Clearly, there was some difficulty in the friendship — Varda explains that it has been years since she has seen him — and she considers the wording JR uses to be very important. She chastises him for referring to Godard as her “old friend,” phrasing that Varda finds annoying: “Don’t say old friend! He’s a longtime friend.”
It would be a spoiler to say what happens when Varda and JR arrive at Godard’s home, but the sequence is deeply affecting, and leads to the film’s most emotional moment. It solidifies the bond between Varda and JR, and by extension, the audience’s bond with them both.
It’s a fitting conclusion to a tremendously satisfying film. “Faces Places” is truly a joyous documentary, and qualifies as a must-see for any lover of cinema. If it is indeed Varda’s final film, it’s hard to think of a more effective goodbye.
4 stars (out of 4)
Director Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist J.R. journey through rural France and form an unlikely friendship. 90 minutes. Rated PG for brief nude images and thematic elements. In French with English subtitles.