Review – ‘Faces Places’ is a heartfelt celebration of ordinary people

Poster for 2018 documentary Faces Places

Genre: Documentary
Certificate: 12
UK Release Date: 21st September 2018
Runtime: 94 minutes
Director: Agnès Varda, JR
Writer: Agnès Varda
Starring: Agnès Varda, JR
Synopsis: Legendary French New Wave director Agnès Varda and enigmatic visual artist JR embark on a journey across France, photographing ordinary people and pasting their pictures on walls as a celebration of their lives.

 

 

It has taken Faces Places a long time to get to UK cinemas. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival way back in May 2017, hit US cinemas almost a year ago and was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar earlier this year. However, the long wait for its arrival is almost fitting for a movie that’s built on quiet contemplation and patience above all else. It’s a sweet-natured and life-affirming story that benefits hugely from the luminous presence of Agnès Varda – queen of La Nouvelle Vague – at its centre.

The film follows Varda as she forms a friendship with photographer and visual artist JR, who in obvious and intriguing similarity to Varda’s French New Wave contemporary Jean-Luc Godard is always seen wearing dark glasses. The duo embark on a road trip across France in JR’s camera-shaped vehicle – a photo booth that prints enormous grayscale portraits of the people who use it. They stop in various small towns and villages in order to photograph ordinary people, pasting the gigantic portraits on the side of structures including houses, barns and shipping containers.

Much of Faces Places works on the union between the creative zeal and idealism of JR and the gentle humanism of Varda, who is increasingly in touch with her own mortality. She’s keen to document everything and refers to things that “fall down the holes in my memory” as she grows older, while also saying she’s almost excited to die “because that’ll be that”. Her vulnerability gives the movie many of its emotional moments, as well as the funniest. A scene of her receiving an eye injection is immediately followed by a sharp exchange in which Varda compares it to the notorious eyeball slice in Un Chien Andalou.

While mortality does play a part in the film, it’s a celebration of life more than anything else. The people and locations visited are not big cities and famous folks, but ordinary workers, former miners, goat farmers and the people that make up the mostly uncelebrated ranks of French society. In an early scene, the camera holds on the face of a woman as she tears up looking at her face pasted on the side of her house, along with images of the miners who used to live on the street. It’s simple, but powerful, and that’s the message for which the film shoots.

The spiky chemistry between Varda and JR is key to ensuring that the movie never descends into snooze-worthy schmaltz. They clearly get on, but there’s a prickly tension that keeps the creativity going. The film foregrounds their relationship late on for scenes involving the real Godard, but these feel like a misstep and rob the movie of the simplistic message that has run through it. When Faces Places celebrates the way normality is anything but mundane, it soars in a way that will warm the cockles of anyone with a heart.

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Simplicity and the spontaneity of normal people powers Faces Places into being a genuinely warm and affectionate documentary that has plenty of time for people who seldom get showcased on the big screen. It stumbles a little when it looks inward at its protagonists in the third act but, by then, it has built a stockpile of audience goodwill through sheer force of niceness.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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