“Chance has always been my best assistant”, the inimitable Agnès Varda intones towards the beginning of her newest film essay, Faces Places. Varda’s career is a gorgeous synthesis of innovative fiction films (Cléo From 5 to 7 , Le Bonheur , Vagabond ) and even more inventive documentaries (Daguerréotypes , Murs murs , The Gleaners and I , and, very much the best single work of her career, The Beaches of Agnès ). She is taking another chance with this latest project, and it pays off magnificently.
Faces Places contains one obvious difference at the outset: it’s the first of her films that she’s co-directed. Her partner here is the photoartist JR, and at first they seem unlikely allies: she is small and he tall, she is slow and he quick, she is above all earnest and he detached, quick to quip and ironise; but what they share is an uncontainable imaginative jouissance. In an odd way, the pair complete each other. She admires his work, and needs his eyes, since hers are starting to fail. He is clearly indebted to her work on murals, and the reciprocal affection they feel is just one of the many lovely things about this film.
Here’s another: their mission is to travel around small villages in France, talk to people, hear their stories, and take photographs of them. Once they have their images, they set to blowing up their compositions to large-format size, and pasting them on the facades of buildings they find. Faces tell stories, and just by looking, and asking, and being curious, they find beautiful ones.
The route they take is circuitous and delights in divagation. Varda espouses spontaneity as the chief pleasure of their task, but it’s difficult to live off the cuff with a camera operator and sound technician in tow. How strange then that Faces Places manages to feel epiphanic at times, such as a moment in which the pair paste an image of Varda’s late photographer friend Guy Bourdin on to the tilted face of an upturned German bunker on a beach. This act of remembrance is interrupted by the tide, which by morning washes the sight away.
Faces Places is a delectation. But, lovely and warming as it is, Varda and JR aren’t afraid to go to emotionally fraught places, such as the final sequence, which results in a teary-eyed Varda proclaiming a famous French director to be a “dirty rat!”. Whether this is a set-up or not is up to the individual viewer, but what it proves is that Varda is still willing to use the material of her own life for her art, and this openness is nothing short of heroic. Leave it to this most surprising of pairings to break your heart and then mend it.
Images: Eigenes Werk via Wikimedia Commons