DIR/WRI: Agnès Varda, JR • PRO: Rosalie Varda • ED: Maxime Pozzi-Garcia, Agnès Varda • MUS: Matthieu Chedid • CAST: Agnès Varda, JR
This September the IFI hosted an Agnès Varda retrospective which provided audiences with the chance to dive back into the works of this pioneering new wave female director. This retrospective was no doubt sparked by the filmmaker’s latest addition to the excellent collection of films she already has under her belt. Faces, Places is a docu-travelogue which follows the dynamic and nomadic duo of 88 year old Agnès and JR, a 33 year old photographer. The duo embark on a meandering escapade through the lesser known regions of France in search of the faces and places that are being erased from the landscape of modern day life in France.
The film touches on many different ideas; it is a film about discovery, curiosity, stories, communication and the power of art. The overall aim of the duo’s shared project is to seek out the underrepresented people that they come across in their travels and give them the chance to be noticed and heard. One of the strongest aspects of this film is its ability to demonstrate the number of different ways that art can take effect. Essentially from village to village, JR plasters giant murals of these everyday people, stirring up a range of reactions and responses. These giant murals act to unify the people who inhabit these places, to pay homage to their lives and achievements in a world that may no longer support their way of life. While art can be used to remember and represent, it can also be employed innovatively to break through barriers and express the unspoken. Above all, the medium of art in this film gives people a voice.
Tradition and memory are significant themes which re-occur throughout the film, illustrated most clearly when Agnès and JR visit an old mining village in North France. Members of the community gather to tell their stories and document this way of life that is no more, with the exception of one solitary inhabitant who will not let go. On a street of former miner workers homes, one lady will not leave her residence, cherishing her past and doggedly holding onto her memories. Mining would have been an arduous way to make a living yet this community laments the past. Village members gather together in a shared reverence at the murals of former miners as they are plastered across this block of homes. Most touching perhaps is the mural of the last remaining inhabitant, she is at a loss for words and close to tears when her mural is unveiled. This is art that gives hope and spreads joy, celebrating and recognising a life lived.
While on the one hand art can be used to record, it can also be used to start a conversation and draw attention to the people that need to be noticed. JR and Agnès move on from miners to dockers and, significantly, Agnès chooses to shine a light on the dockers’ wives instead of the work men. We meet three dockers’ wives and they are given the opportunity to tell their stories. Shipping docks are piled high up into the air- with these three women’s large scale portraits plastered on- they stand tall and their images are dominant in a male dominated world.
Although the film gives a voice to some of the sadness that is present in sleepy rural towns with diminishing ways of life, the film is ultimately one of discovery and is often joyful. Two of the most heart-warming moments of sheer joy come in the form of JR wheeling Agnès through the Louvre in a wheelchair – an abandon to impulsivity and an appreciation of beauty. Another visual treat which stood out was the idea to photograph each village member of a small town with a baguette covering their mouths- collectively making a mural of one tiny village consuming one very large baguette. This could be seen as a return to basics by getting a community to really break bread together. On one particular location in which the duo has completed a wall mural someone simply asks them why they want to do this. Agnès’ response that it celebrates the power of imagination puts an important emphasis on something that we have mostly forgotten the importance and effect of: the joy of art and creativity.
Overall, this film is one of a kind and a joy to watch. It is a film that shows the wonder that stems from slowing down and noticing the people around you. Agnès and JR are united by their passion for adventure and belief that there is always someone somewhere to be discovered with a story to tell. Visually, this movie is a discovery of the pockets of beauty and life that lie in the lesser known parts of France, brought to life by this unique pair.