Sheer perfection – that’s the phrase that springs to mind when describing the humanist miracle that is Faces Places, the year’s best and most beguiling documentary. It’s also a testament to the talents of Agnes Varda, the pint-sized, 89-year-old goddess of New Wave French cinema, and JR, the lanky 34-year-old photographer and visual artist who teams up with the veteran filmmaker to chronicle French rural life. They drive around in his van, which doubles as a photo booth able to produce large-format prints – all the better for plastering the works on the walls of farms, houses and buildings so their subjects can stare in wonder. As can we.
Varda and her mischief-making partner in crime (who’s always hiding behind sunglasses) memorialize these faces and places so, in her words, “they don’t fall into the hole of memory.” In that sense, both artists are paying tribute to the power of the image, which is on transcendent and transporting display here. The enduring feminist in Varda emerges as the team interviews three dock workers and the elder stateswoman immediately gravitates to their wives whose expressions tell a story that defies any mere verbal description.
There is a bracing buoyancy to Faces Places that truly is life affirming. JR, a relative beginner in the journey of capturing the world before him, is contrasted with Varda, a filmmaker acutely aware of her own mortality and determined to squeeze every ounce of joy and discovery out of what’s still ahead. It’s not an art-house curiosity or a pretty-postcard fantasy – it isn’t like any movie you’ve ever seen. Instead, this indescribable, incredible journey presents the world not as Hollywood sees it, but as it really is.
That such is a vision is so rare speaks volumes about our corrupted culture. There is a sadness in the film as it speaks of the impermanence of life, but there’s no denying the elation of Varda and JR as the leap fearlessly into the art of making art. The clash of their generations harmonize here into an exhilarating gift.