Following the New Wave filmmaker and icon’s death last month, it seems an appropriate time to revisit some of the films of Agnès Varda. Faces Places (or Visages Villages in the original French) is a collaboration between Varda and the artist JR, who combines photography and street art to create enormous murals often on the sides of buildings. The unlikely duo travel round to the villages and small towns of France to capture the voices and the stories of the occupants.
The central narrative of the documentary is the relationship between JR and Varda – who, then in her late 80s, is slowly loosing aspects of her memory and vision – both gently coaching each other in their art. It’s often contemplative, with Varda discussing both her early friendships and career, as well as the prospect of death which she states that she is “quite looking forward to”.
This easy-going warmth and willingness to share also impacts the people they meet in the towns and villages – in an old mining town a woman shares stories of growing up in the community, and her refusal to move out of the mining cottages that are now fully abandoned. These houses serves as a canvas for JR and Varda, who paste huge photos of miners along side the one remaining occupant – who is clearly overwhelmed to have a monument to her quiet strength and dignity.
These little snippets of rural life – the local eccentric artist Pony, the woman who runs her own goat farm, a shy waitress, a man about to retire – are all played out in wholly naturalistic ways. They are never put under pressure to speak or share their lives, but there is something about JR and Varda’s interviewing that makes it simply feel like a conversation with old friends.
The art work is understandably simple yet is able to convey a sense of beauty, humanising buildings and structures in a way that brings that back into the community. Workers posing on a walkway in factory, three women from the docking community sitting high inside shipping containers inside titanic statues of themselves, Varda’s toes and eyes moving past of a freight train, blown up to a huge proportion. There is something quietly powerful about each image.
Faces Places captures real moments of vulnerability, happiness and friendship in a road-movie unlike anything you’ve seen before.