Updated: Feb 16, 2019
Faces Places (Visages Villages) dir. Agnès Varda and JR (89 mins) Trailer
88-year-old filmmaker Agnès Varda and 33-year-old visual artist JR travel around France taking photos of ordinary people they meet by chance—a café waitress, factory workers, the wives of dockworkers, farmers, goats, &c.—and pasting them on walls, train cars, shipping containers. There are emotional moments when subjects view their larger than life images. Some are moved to tears. This is a sweet film that made me feel good even if at the end Varda's long-time friend Jean-Luc Godard turns out to be a rat. She still likes him, she tells JR, but he's a rat.
Faces Places was nominated for an Oscar in the documentary feature category. When Agnès Varda could not make the luncheon for nominees, JR created cardboard cutouts, life-size replicas, of her in various poses and placed them around the room so other nominees could be photographed with her. An account of the event in The Guardian shows her (cutout version) with Meryl Streep and Greta Gerwig.
Varda is considered one of the great auteurs of French cinema. Born in Belgium, she went to Paris to study photography at the École des Beaux-arts and art history at the École du Louvre. Her first film, Le Pointe court, was released in 1954 and brought her to the attention of young French filmmakers associated with the nouvelle vague (New Wave). Her second film, Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7), came in 1961. Among her many other films are Le Bonheur, Vagabond (with Sandrine Bonnaire), and The Gleaners and I.
Varda met the director Jacques Demy (1931–1990) in 1961. They married in 1962 and had a son, Mathieu (b. 1972), who is an actor, director, and producer. Varda also has a daughter, Rosalie (b. 1958), from a previous relationship. Rosalie is a costume designer, writer, actress, and producer of Faces Places.
In 1971 Agnès Varda was a signer of the Manifesto of the 343. Three hundred and forty-three Fench women declared publicly that they had had an abortion, illegal at the time, thus exposing themselves to criminal prosecution, and demanded free access to contraception and the right to have an abortion. The manifesto's text was written by Simone de Beauvoir. Co-signers included Catherine Deneuve, Marguerite Duras, Jeanne Moreau, and Françoise Sagan.
JR is the pseudonym of an artist whose identity remains a mystery. That identity was slightly unveiled at the end of Faces Places, when Agnès Varda finally prevailed upon him to remove his dark glasses and for a moment we saw his face through her blurry vision. JR grew up in a Paris suburb. His parents were from Tunis and eastern Europe. He began his career as a teenage graffiti artist before moving on to photography after he "realised how it communicated with people who would never stop to look at graffiti in the street." (Harvey, The rise of JR)
JR and Varda met when Rosalie Varda invited him to tea at her mother's house. They hit it off. Says JR:
We didn’t know each other. She didn’t know if I would be a pain in the ass to work with or vice versa. We just started working and then we got caught up in it. It was friendship at first sight, although it was not easy working together at the beginning. We had arguments—she had never co-directed anything in her life, so we fought. (Harvey)
From the website JR:
After finding a camera in the Paris metro in 2001, he traveled Europe to meet those who express themselves on walls and facades, and pasted their portraits in the streets, undergrounds and rooftops of Paris.
In 2006, he created Portrait of a Generation, portraits of suburban "thugs" that he posted, in huge formats, in the bourgeois districts of Paris.
In 2007, with Marco, he made Face 2 Face, the biggest illegal exhibition ever. JR posted huge portraits of Israelis and Palestinians face to face in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities.
In 2010, his film Women Are Heroes was presented at Cannes.
Faces Places is a joy. The genuine curiosity Varda and JR have about the people they photograph and the respect they show them shine through every scene. The introduction to JR and his works is a wonderful bonus.
Chris Harvey, The rise of JR: how a French graffiti artist with a Xerox conquered the art world, The Telegraph, January 6, 2018
JR (website with bio notes, videos, exhibitions &c.)
Manifesto of the 343, Wikipedia
James Travers, Agnès Varda, Films de France.com, 2017