To be frank with you, Agnès Varda was not a familiar name to me even when I watched tons of movies during the 2000s. Although I managed to watch her second feature film “Cléo from 5 to 7” (1962), her notable works such as “Vagabond” (1985) were somehow out of my reach during that time, and I remained oblivious to her significant contribution to the French New Wave era until I came to learn about her two recent documentary films “The Gleaners and I” (2000) and “The Beaches of Agnès” (2008).
Due to my late learning on Varda’s long, illustrious filmmaking career, I was a bit worried as preparing myself for watching her latest documentary film “Faces Places”, but I instantly found myself charmed by its free-wheeling spirit. As entertaining and mesmerizing as “The Gleaners and I” and “The Beaches of Agnès”, the documentary is another lovely work from a great filmmaker who deserves to be nicknamed the ‘Grandmother of the French New Wave’, and you will admire how effortlessly it draws into its lively journey which is full of sublime episodic moments to remember.
In the beginning, the documentary presents a series of playful scenes between Varda and JR, a 34-year-old French flyposting artist who is the co-director of the documentary. As we see them coming across and then passing by each other several times, they respectively emphasize how they do not notice each other much, and this sly humorous moment continues for a while until we eventually see them talking with each other in private.
For their collaborative project, Varda and JR are going to go around here and there in rural regions of France, and that surely reminds me of what she previously did in “The Gleaners and I” and “The Beaches of Agnès”. In “The Gleaners and I”, she virtually gleaned many small precious moments from various types of gleaners she encountered during her little journey, and there is an unmistakable thematic resonance between her subject and storytelling approach. In “The Beaches of Agnès”, she moved from one beach to another as vivaciously and poignantly presenting her life and career, and she certainly showed us that she is too spirited to be merely labeled as a living legend.
Although she is soon going to have her 90th birthday this year, Varda demonstrates to us again here in this documentary that she has not lost any of her spirit yet. While her distinctive appearance mainly defined by her rather unusual hairdo instantly draws our attention, she casually exudes joie de vivre from her gentle, diminutive face, and that makes an interesting contrast with JR, who is your average hip artist inseparable from his slick, fashionable attire and a pair of sunglasses.
While JR drives his truck which often functions as a big photograph booth, he and Varda looks for people and places curious enough for their collaborative project, and they do come across a number of interesting people and locations. In a nearly abandoned rural town which were once resided by many miners, they meet an old woman virtually living alone in her neighborhood, and she has her own story to tell. In a remote farm, they meet a farmer who gladly tells them about how he has managed a large chunk of land alone thanks to automatization, and we observe how he works on a field to be cultivated. In a chemical factory, they meet a group of workers, and one of them happens to be going through his last day before retirement. In two goat farms, they observe two different ways of handling goats, and we come to reflect on which way is really better. In Le Havre, they meet a trio of port workers, and then they also meet these workers’ wives, who have their own things to tell.
In the meantime, Varda and JR work together for bringing art to the places visited by them. In case of that abandoned town, they plaster the big photographs of miners to the walls of several old abandoned buildings, and the front side of that old lady’s house is covered with her photograph. In case of the aforementioned chemical factory, they shoot two groups of employees separately and then plasters the two resulting photographs together on one wall, and the overall result is quite memorable as succinctly conveying the messages of unity and solidarity. In case of Le Havre, they have heaps of containers assembled together, and we soon see the completion of a triptych showing those three port workers’ wives.
The most challenging case for JR and Varda comes from an old German military bunker left on a beach. After some talks and discussions, they eventually agree to choose an old photograph from Varda’s collection, and her instinct turns out to be correct. The photograph somehow fits well to the surrounding environment, and that surely gives us another memorable moment in the documentary.
As working and traveling together, Varda and JR come to solidify their friendship. At one point, JR introduces Varda to his 100-year-old grandmother, and Varda later attempts to introduce JR personally to another living legend of her generation. I will not go into details on that part, but I can tell you instead that I admire a lot how fluidly and sincerely JR and Varda pull out an unexpectedly special moment in the end.
Overall, “Face Places”, which received the Golden Eye award at the Cannes Film Festival in last year and recently garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, is one of the most interesting films from last years, and Varda, who deservedly received an Honorary Oscar in last year, seems to be far from retirement. Yes, as occasionally shown from the documentary, she is indeed getting older and weakened day by day, but her spirit is still there, and I hope this extraordinary artist will keep going on as usual.