Faces Places is simultaneously the best and the worst introduction to Agnès Varda’s sensibilities as a filmmaker that I can imagine. At nearly 90 years old, Varda is decades past her youthful heyday as an undervalued innovator in the shadows of the male-dominated French New Wave movement. Faces Places is also her collaboration with a younger artist, diluting Varda’s voice with outsider input. At the same time, though, the film functions as a thorough introduction to Varda’s history as an auteur. It’s a project that combines her multimedia interests in instillation art, photography, and both documentary & narrative filmmaking. It touches on her past personal relationships with artists like Jacques Demy & Jean-Luc Godard and continues her mentorship of those familiar names with her young co-director, a photographer named JR. I was unfamiliar with Varda’s creative voice at the start of Faces Places, but left feeling as if I had known her my entire life. The film is built on the back of her continued legacy, but invites you to dig deeper into her catalog instead of locking out the uninitiated. I’m simultaneously embarrassed that Varda’s 25th feature film was the first I had ever seen and delighted to meet her in such an all-encompassing, immediately lovable crash course.
Faces Places is nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards, but that category selection is something of cheat. The main subject documented in the film is the blossoming friendship & artistic collaboration between Varda & JR, but it’s a narrative expressed mostly through staged comedic routines. They discuss meeting as admirers of each other’s art (especially as connoisseurs of photography & mural work), poke fun at the cartoonish differences between their bodies (JR is youthful & lanky, while Varda is a tiny, exhausted thing), trade bad puns, pontificate musings on the nature of cats, etc. These exchanges are consistently adorable, but artificially (and intentionally) performative. Where the film’s true documentary streak emerges is in the pop art instillation project the pair collaborate on. Varda & JR travel through small villages in the French countryside (in a magical truck that doubles as a large-format Polariod camera), looking to meet & document the “real people” who live there. It’s a project that’s entirely dependent on collaboration & spontaneity. The genuine, unplanned conversations missing in Varda’s interactions with JR are abundant among the various subjects they meet on the road.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Faces Places is the way it uses its adorable surface of kittens, friendship, and shameless puns to hide its deep well of radical politics. Varda & JR are very particular about the small-village subjects they select to interview, painting a portrait of a Europe composed almost entirely of farmers, factory workers, coal miners, waitresses, shipping dock unions, and other working-class archetypes. They pay homage to these subjects by blowing their portraits up to towering proportions, then pasting them to the exteriors of spaces they’ve historically occupied. More importantly, they involve these impromptu collaborators directly in the creative process, so they can feel just as much pride as artists as they feel as subjects. The project often feels like a playful, wholesome version of graffiti, which is always a political act (even if rarely this well-considered). Watching Varda & JR politely negotiate their lack of permits with cops or reconcile with the impermanence of the paper & paste art instillations they erect in these communities doesn’t exactly feel like burn-the-system-to-the-ground radicalism in the moment. However, the types of voices they choose to amplify with the project and the grand public displays they make out of undervalued people’s basic existence has a subversive nature to it all the same.
It would be easy to pigeonhole Faces Places as a more wholesome Exit Through the Gift Shop or an aggressively quirky travel diary, but Varda & JR deliver something much more unique than those descriptors imply. Touches of Buñuel surrealism, “wonderfully disgusting” gross-outs, art history lectures, working-class politics, and vaudevillian irreverence subvert & distort what you might typically expect from a well-behaved, crowd-pleasing documentary from a director near the end of her career. Faces Places is a loving self-portrait of a beautiful friendship, as well as a crash course history in the multimedia achievements Varda has tirelessly striven towards over the decades. I’m excited to dive into the more youthful, combative films of her distant past now that I’ve tested the waters, but also grateful to have been introduced to her through such a complexly endearing work. It’s an achievement that feels like it’s been a long time coming, even though Varda’s voice & I have just met.