Film Review: Faces Places

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Director: Agnès Varda and JR

12A | 1h 34min | Documentary | 21 September (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Here comes a delightfully playful and uplifting road trip come art project courtesy of the grand dame of French cinema herself, Agnès Varda, teamed here with the artist and photographer JR. JR and Varda, separated by 60 odd years in age and very different in temperament, nevertheless forge an appealing partnership as they pile into JR’s lab-in-a-van and set out across the French interior, on an impulsive whim they cook up to capture the lives of the various people they meet using JR’s specific aesthetic of blowing up portraits of subjects to enormous scale. This documentary shed lights on parts of that journey, with each encounter with various French denizens resulting in a giant photo portrait being left mounted in a significant spot (a wall, the pavement, sometimes a more unusual spot) for the contemplation of the subject and the locals.

Varda and JR share a lifelong passion for images and how they’re created, displayed and shared, so their partnership makes sense, even if JR’s pretentious getup and gregarious nature (he affects to look like Varda’s old chum Jean-Luc Godard, with sunglasses on 24/7) clashes with Varda’s serene, almost cherubic air. Always willing to play around with the conventions of the documentary, Varda engaged JR in banter about their chalk and cheese nature, as well as the infirmities of age that JR is lucky to avoid, in several conversational moments that have the air of being staged, but are enjoyably cheeky. Varda’s advancing years - she is over 90 - are confronted openly (her eyes are failing, for one thing, and we see need for various treatments interrupt their road trip at times), and this can’t help but lend a poignant air to the encounters the duo have with the various communities they run into on their journey, who range from dock workers on the coast to an elderly lady holding on to the last mining town terrace house left in her street which is wanted for redevelopment.

The act of leaving each of these people with an outdoor portrait/mural feels very much like a gesture of what you might call ‘cinematic giving’ from Varda, each mural could be seen as a still from a film, that film being a reflection of the lives of the subjects she seems so pleased to be spending time with. It is as if Varda is giving back to the French people, after their years of supporting her filmmaking, as she reaches her twilight years. Without exception, each recipient is shown to be very moved by the experience of having their portrait displayed in a place of meaning, as well as being impressed by the technical accomplishment of JR’s technique. For the dock workers, this extends to creating a sort of jigsaw puzzle of the portraits of the wives of the dock workers by plastering fragments of their image across the sides of several shipping containers, which the dockers dutifully arrange into place with their giant forklifts to form the completed image of their wives’s faces. A tender, playful and humanist film that re-affirmed my love of Varda’s non fiction work.

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.