These notes on Agnès Varda's & JR's Faces Places (Visages Villages) were written by Matt St. John, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. The Cinematheque will present the only theatrical screenings of the Oscar-nominated Faces Places on Friday, January 26 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, January 27 at 5 p.m. in our regular venue at 4070 Vilas Hall. Free admission for both screenings.
By Matt St. John
After making films for more than sixty years, Agnès Varda continues to try new approaches. With Faces Places (Visages Villages), the now 89-year-old French New Wave veteran has co-directed for the first time, working with 34-year-old artist JR. Their unlikely intergenerational friendship becomes one of the guiding topics of Faces Places, a warmhearted, thoughtful film that won awards at major festivals throughout the last year and just received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature earlier this week. Faces Places contemplates many of the concerns from Varda’s other documentary work like The Gleaners & I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), such as autobiography and the creation of art. But Varda now addresses these ideas through a collaboration with a younger artist, in a project that benefits from their shared artistic affinities and investments.
Faces Places frequently shows Varda and JR’s collaborative filmmaking choices in observational footage or amusing staged reenactments, making the content of the film inseparable from its creation. This project began after Varda and JR were introduced by her daughter (and the film’s producer), Rosalie. Just a few days later, Varda and JR started filming a road trip to villages throughout France, traveling in his photo-booth truck. Meeting people who live and work in the small communities, they found subjects for JR’s large format, ephemeral photographs. Black-and-white images of individuals and groups were printed from his truck and pasted on buildings for their fellow villagers to observe and enjoy, making art out of ordinary people. Varda and JR often filmed their subjects in front of the final mounted photographs, preserving these temporary images through a documentary about their production.
These artistic processes used in Faces Places, photography and filmmaking, draw on Varda and JR’s backgrounds working in different media. While Varda is primarily known for her films, shifting between the categories of shorts, features, documentary, and fiction throughout her career, she was first a professional photographer and has also created mixed media installations, which have become increasingly important to her artistic practice in recent years. Her past work is repeatedly referenced in Faces Places, from specific photographs to famous scenes from her films. Sometimes these references inspire parts of her art-making road trip with JR, while at other times they cause her to reflect on personal experiences, such as her friendship with Jean-Luc Godard. Just as critics and audiences tend to associate Varda with film alone, JR is usually linked to his photography. His famous large-scale works often address political subjects in contested spaces, like his recent photography installation of a Mexican toddler peering over the border wall into California, but this popular format was not his only artistic medium before Faces Places. JR previously directed Ellis, a short film about immigrant experience starring Robert De Niro, and documentaries based on his photography works Women Are Heroes, a tribute to women who suffer violence in Rio de Janeiro, and Inside Out, a global crowdsourced project to create large portraits advocating for change. One medium certainly dominates each of their careers (film for Varda and photography for JR), but they both have diverse backgrounds working with the various formats involved in Faces Places.
Varda and JR’s partnership may stem, in part, from this experience with both photography and film, but they also share an investment in the lives of ordinary people as a topic for their art. In their interview with Slant, JR notes that his artwork presents regular people as if they were famous, in the enormous, instantly noticeable format usually reserved for advertising and images of celebrities. Varda’s films often attend to marginalized people living outside of mainstream awareness, like the homeless young woman in the 1985 fiction film Vagabond or the subjects of The Gleaners and I. In an interview with New York Magazine’s Jada Yuan, Varda explains that this similarity led to her partnership with JR: “Because our aims, on his side and on my side, had some common points, really: to be interested in other people, unknown people, not being famous people. We decided on people who have no power. People that you can meet in villages.” This interest leads them to places as varied as goat farms, a chemical plant, and shipping docks in Faces Places, but they always discover ways to celebrate the people they meet through art, using both JR’s photography and the film itself.
In the Slant interview, Varda claims the film “is energetic because it says life is interesting, people are interesting, and it’s worth creating a link between them and us, between the people and the audience.” Through the artistic process and the fundamental interest in daily life, the film underscores the possibility of connections between ordinary people, as well as Varda’s openness to establishing new links of her own, like her friendship with JR. Varda reflects on her prior work and friendships while creating a film with this new collaborator, and a subtle theme of the relationship between past and present develops throughout Faces Places. This grants the film an emotional resonance that builds during its seemingly light and playful journey to a profound, memorable ending to their road trip. Agnès Varda has been dedicated to incorporating new methods throughout her career, and in Faces Places, she adds to her curious and generous artistic practice by inviting a new face along for the ride.