Agnès Varda may not see as well as she used to, but her creative vision has never been clearer. If the magnificently moving, funny, life-affirming, and altogether wonderful “Faces Places” (or, in its original language, the much smoother “Visages Villages”) is to be the 88-year-old Belgian auteur’s last film, it will be because of her failing eyesight or the inexplicable difficulty she’s had with funding her work, and not because she’s run out of things to say or novel ways to say them.
If this is to be her last film, then it will be one of cinema’s most extraordinary sendoffs, as poignant and perfect a swan song as Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” or Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love.” Never mind the fact that Miyazaki is supposedly working on another feature, or that Cannes is posthumously presenting Kiarostami’s final non-narrative work — when it comes to the truly great artists, the end is never really the end.
Indeed, notions of finality and (im)permanence cast a long shadow over “Faces Places,” which finds Varda teaming up with a semi-anonymous street photographer named JR, who serves as the film’s co-director, for a whimsical tour of the French countryside. The plan is to drive from one bucolic village to another, invite the locals to pose in the van that JR has transformed into a mobile photo booth, and paste massive print-outs of the resulting portraits onto the environments their subjects call home. Varda loves the idea, she’s compelled to “photograph faces so they don’t fall into the hole of memory.”
But while all of the people they meet are delightful characters who the film manages to milk for every ounce of their personality, Varda and JR inevitably emerge as the real stars here.
She is nearly 90; he is 34. She worked with Jean-Luc Godard; he looks like Jean-Luc Godard (and, much to Varda’s consternation, will similarly not take off his sunglasses). And yet, the movie is barely five minutes old before it’s clear that these two are a screen duo for the ages. From the charmingly animated opening credits, to the whimsical voiceover in which Varda and JR imagine all the places they might have met — cue footage of Varda dancing in a nightclub — the pair establish an instant rapport that feels too perfect to be faked. In regards to both their chemistry and its context, they come across like less competitive, more huggable versions of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan (though it’s hard to say which is which).
Varda has always possessed a warm and compulsively watchable screen presence, and the pint-sized iconoclast — easy to spot on the festival circuit in recent years thanks to the signature stripe of purple dye that rings around her hair like a bullseye — still has more pep in her step than most of us have ever had. JR is the real variable here, and everything about him makes you brace for a douchebag; between the arrogant scale of his art and the affectedness of his appearance, the young artist seems like nothing but trouble.
Fortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. JR is an absolute joy (and a mensch, to boot), and the playful relationship he develops with Varda makes you sad for all the years of her life that they didn’t know each other. Teasing at times, quietly deferential at others, he taps into his co-star’s inherent sense of wonder and creates a canvas big enough for her to fit all of the ideas that she’s still dying to project.
At one point, Varda wistfully sighs that “Every new person I meet feels like my last one,” and while her comment may have been prompted by one of the passing strangers who she encounters on this journey, JR is obviously its true inspiration. Varda readily concedes that she’s “looking forward” to the end, but as she meets the young man’s 100-year-old grandmother, or sits with him as they stare out into the sea and reflect (via storybook-like narration) on the people they’ve photographed, it’s hard to imagine that she doesn’t feel as though she’s barely scratched the surface of this world. He is a living reminder of all the great humans she won’t get to meet, all of the new ways through which she won’t get to see them. The more you find to love about this place, the more you have to leave behind.
Agnes Varda was already a woman who was destined to leave her will on film, but it’s deeply beautiful (and tons of fun) to watch this great artist commemorate the blue-collar NPCs of rural France, these farmers and postmen and laborers who are unknown in their own time. Despite how that may sound, there isn’t whiff of condescension to be found here. Varda and JR aren’t validating their subjects, but rather asking them to help corroborate the idea that images are a way of affirming our existence, of being bigger than our bodies.
Some of them are A-grade eccentrics (like Pony, the toothless poet who lives under the stars and makes art out of bottle caps). Others are more run-of-the-mill types, but no less compelling for that. In fact, Varda and JR’s most memorable subjects might be the three dock workers we meet towards the end of the film — well, not them, but rather their wives. Varda has always been a vital voice for women, and “Faces Places” builds to an endearingly perfect illustration of why, as she and JR make it well and truly impossible to overlook these ladies.
But nothing lasts forever. We see that during the touching sequence in which Varda blows up a photo of her deceased friend, Guy Bourdain, and slathers it over a bunker that’s crashed onto the world’s most deserted beach — when they return the next morning, the photo has been washed away by the tide. That ephemeral feeling strikes again in the film’s heartbreaking final sequence, which plunges into the depths of cinema history before eventually returning with the achingly bittersweet truth that life is less fulfilling than what you see in the movies. All the same, Varda’s soul-stirring “Faces Places” is an essential reminder that it doesn’t always have to be.
“Faces Places” premiered as a Special Screening at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Cohen Media Group will release it later this year.