Documentary Review: Varda teams up with JR to visit “Faces Places”

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The French street artist JR (Jean-Rene…something) takes evocative photographs, blows them and plasters them on walls, alleys, rooftops — public spaces. Think of a more sentimental Banksy, somebody whose work is more about delight than provocation.

Agnés Varda is one of the last survivors of French cinema’s Nouevelle Vague/New Wave, a quixotic figure who has made few well-known films (“One Sings, the Other Doesn’t,” “Vagabond”) and highly-personal essay documentaries (“The Beaches of Agnés”) in her 60 years behind the camera.

They made an odd couple, the 30something hipster who looks a little like a young Elvis Costello, and the diminutive 88 year-old garden gnome of world cinema. But they prove to be an adorable, productive pair as they set out to photograph and install an unconventional moveable feast of installation art in “Faces Places,” the Oscar-nominated documentary.

More evocatively titled “Visages Villages” in French — And doesn’t EVERYthing sound better in French? — the idea was to visit villages and remote corners of France, find interesting canvases to park JR’s images on, and then find the right faces to use in these gigantic posters.

The pair of them travel in a van with a giant camera photo plastered on its sides, joke, reminisce (in Varda’s case), challenge and gently prod each other. It’s most JR’s show, but Varda is here to ask questions, suggest images and locations and plead with the photographer to take his omnipresent sunglasses off.

It’s not the most consequential of films, but from first stop to almost the last, it’s a trippy, traveling delight. They meet Jeanine, the last holdout in a once thriving/now abandoned mining village, and have the brainstorm of collecting old photos from retired miners or their descendants, blowing them up and postering the empty row houses where they used to live.

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A farmer’s barn evokes a traditional French profession, but the one-man farm tells the story of how the work has become mechanized, computerized and super-efficient. Put his picture on the barn. A pretty waitress is blown up to cover an entire wall of this village, a famous photographer graces that fallen German cliffside blockhouse.

From Clerence to Bemieux and assort “Saint” this-or-that, Varda laments “It feels like my last” film, JR pooh-poohs her, and takes inspiration from her reminiscences. They visit graveyards and the old homes of old friends, rummage through her old photos, postcards and the photos of those they meet, and search for her old pal and New Wave icon Jean-luc Goddard.

They meet dock-workers, bell-ringers, retirees and goatherds.

Why do they do this? “For fun,” Agnés bubbles, in French with English subtitles.

It’s a pity this didn’t win the Oscar, but there are few documentaries of recent years that make you crave a travel guide to plan your next trip to France. These out of the way places, with their tattered remains (in most cases) of giant face posters adorning public walls, show us a France far away from the tourist TV shows or the movies.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: PG for brief nude images and thematic elements

Cast: Agnes Varda, JR

Credits:Directed by JR, Agnes Varda. A Cohen Media Group release.

Running time: 1:29

 

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