Something of a prank, a farewell, an art project, a buddy comedy, a vox populi tour of the French countryside, and an inquiry into memory and images and what it means to reveal our eyes to the world, Faces Places is a joyous lulu. It finds the great documentarian and photographer Agnes Varda, 88 at the time of filming, teaming up with the 33-year-old photographer JR to wander France, their itinerary set by their own whims, doing what they each have made a life doing. For JR, that’s pasting photographed portraits of people on building walls and water towers and any surface that will take them; for Varda, it’s meeting those people, talking to them and documenting the process, the results and their impact. “Jeannie, it’s not sad!” Varda says, with exquisite tenderness, to a woman who is brought to tears by the sight of her own visage in black-and-white across the brick face of her home in a mostly abandoned mining town. On other edifices nearby, JR and his team have pasted photos of the miners of generations past, back when there was work below ground.
One recurring theme is the end of community labor: The duo visits two farms, one with 2,000 acres of crops and the other boasting 70 goats, but find that, today, both demand the full-time work of just one or two people. One farmer soon has the image of himself stretched across a barn overlooking the nearby village; the other gets a great goat on a wall, its jutting horns a reminder of the cruelty of the trend of dairy farmers to cut horns off. The owner of the now-immortal goat suggests that it would be easier and kinder just to put clown noses on the animal’s sharp points; the possibility enchants Varda and JR — the artistic solution is the practical one.
Varda and JR also playfully document some of their own process and friendship. “Chance has always been my best assistant,” Varda declares, as she embarks on her first collaborative film — she and JR share a director’s credit. At breakfasts, they discuss where to go next: “I like the spontaneity of it,” she says, “but what’ll we do?” They drive along in JR’s custom truck, painted like a camera and housing a photo booth in the back. They visit his grandmother, put close-ups of Varda’s eyes and toes on train cars, paper over a ghost town with the faces of people who live nearby. There’s occasional disharmony: Varda crabs that the sunglasses that JR insists on wearing at all times, his “costume,” prevent her from seeing his eyes; he replies that her famous two-toned bowl cut — a snowy crown atop burgundy fringe — is something of a costume, too. (Always eager to showcase animals in her films, she points to a white dog and says that’s what she doesn’t want to look like.)
One sequence finds JR and his team (the people who help assemble scaffolding and paste up his photos) shaking off some of Varda’s suggestions about what walls they should use as a canvas near a stretch of beach she photographed half a century ago. Varda is eager to chase ideas that might not work out — pasting her own old photo of a ruined building onto the cinder block exterior of an unfinished new one — while JR is fascinated by the thought of an even more impermanent piece on a towering chunk of concrete (German, from the occupation) that gets covered each day by the tide. Their compromise, of course, is a work of passing beauty, a vision from Varda’s past that soon also is gone.
Still boundlessly curious, the octogenarian seems to be having a great time. “JR is fulfilling my greatest desire,” she proclaims. “To meet new faces and photograph them so they don’t fall down the holes of my memory.” The finale proves bittersweet, a sort of Waiting for Godard situation that finds Varda bummed out that the one famous face that they had hoped to see might not turn up at all. But JR suggesting that the one disappointment in their collaborative film might fruitfully challenge that film’s narrative structure. She considers that and then, as compensation, suggests that they look at a lake. The film is light, funny, alert, alive, the work of a great and her inspired collaborator who are forever happy to be looking.