Agnès Varda and JR did not meet on the road, they did not meet at a bus stop, they did not meet in a bakery, but they were drawn together nevertheless for their fascination with images and what they can contribute to memory - and even memorial. Belgian-born Varda is a filmmaker nearing her nineties, who was part of the French New Wave in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, and bitten by the filmmaking bug has never given it up, determined to keep on making films and television series as long as she is able. JR, meanwhile, is an artist and muralist in his early thirties who has been creating huge artworks for some time, though he will defer to Varda's longer experience on their trip...
Many expected Faces Place (or Visages Villages as it was known originally) to be Varda's final work, since as she was entirely honest about in this, she suffered an eye condition that meant she was gradually going blind, despite the treatment she was getting (and we witness in one scene guaranteed to make the needle-phobic squirm). Perhaps for this reason she was recognised by the Academy Awards in 2018, who nominated this documentary for an Oscar; she did not expect to win, and sure enough she didn't, but it was as if the Academy had thought, what, she's still around? We'd better check out her efforts to make sure we don't look out of touch completely!
As Varda herself observed, her films did not make her much money, if at all, but what they had done was win her a group of ardent followers who warmed to her genuine charm and humanity, which were all over her output from the very beginnings of her cinematic journey. It's better to enjoy a cult following than no following at all, and in contrast to her fellow New Wave survivor Jean-Luc Godard, there was always something a lot more approachable about her work, whether she was being humorous or taking a sobering look at those people who fall through life's cracks: Vagabond in the eighties is probably her most famous film now, but not necessarily a typical film of hers.
Nevertheless, her compassion was what marked Varda out, and that was as true in Faces Places as it was anywhere else, be that in her narrative constructs or her factual endeavours. JR complements her ideally here, for he too wishes to champion those who may not be celebrities, may not have achieved great positions of power, but are the heroes of their own lives - it's just that you won't have heard of them before, unless you're a friend or relative. This ranges from the old lady who refuses to budge from the terrace that the long-gone miners used to stay in, and now she remains alone, to the old cove who admits he never had a job throughout his seventy-odd years, and is now living on a pittance of a handout, but seems content with the meagre lot that his existence dealt to him.
Those two are rewarded with one of JR's murals, large black and white photographs (taken in a special van the duo drive around the French countryside) that are pasted onto the biggest walls they can find, be they an unassuming waitress or the posing staff of a factory. All along we were constantly reminded of the power of photographs, and more than that the images that stick in our memories, acknowledging that we may be addicted to capturing the world around us electronically, but it is the pictures in our minds that will stay with us, for they are wedded to the emotions we felt at that time of the memory. This was consistently amusing, with laugh out loud moments, yet trust Godard to conclude on a bitter note: after agreeing to be in the finale of the film, he refuses to answer his door to Varda, leaving a gnomic note for her instead and she is understandably upset. Yet this too may tell us something about the potency of memories: some just cannot face them. Music by Matthieu Chadid.