Faces Places (Visages Villages in French) is an unexpected—and perhaps final—gift from the visionary eighty-nine-year-old director Agnès Varda. Varda had previously announced that her 2008 documentary self-portrait, The Beaches of Agnès, would be her last film, doubting that she had the physical strength to undertake another full-length feature. But chance, which Varda has often acknowledged as her best assistant, intervened; the making of Faces Places is the proof of her axiom.
The film, in which she sets out to document something of the daily realities of the people in a range of French villages, is a record of coincidence and risk. Not the least of these is Varda’s collaboration with her youthful co-director, JR, an artist famous for his monumental installations of black-and-white photo portraits on and in structures including the walls of Brazilian favelas, shipping containers, trains, streets, and grand public institutions like the Panthéon, frequently mounted under his direction by a team of the subjects themselves. (JR’s most recent installation, hung in early September on the border between Tecate, Mexico, and San Diego County in the United States, is a seventy-foot-tall photograph of a Mexican toddler, gazing toward the barrier wall that severs the two countries.) Faces Places is a double portrait, JR’s of Varda at the end of her life and Varda’s of him, a young artist still learning to see.
The film they make also has a double subject: the unexpected delights and discoveries of documenting the lives of the people they encounter in corners of France, and of the bittersweet, and inevitably transitory, friendship that developed during the making of the film between the two artists, travelers in different centuries, looking at the world together and experiencing each other. JR is a man who refuses to be seen, never removing his sunglasses, while Varda is losing her sight. Anything might yet happen to JR, while Varda is at the last border of experience, measuring her body’s advancing ruin. The reclusive JR has quickly become wildly famous, while the ebulliently sociable and voluble Varda has always deliberately refused celebrity. For both, though, art is an encounter with the unknown. Each artist is also the subject of the other, in a work of intricate and sometimes whimsical symmetry, in which a portrait can respond to, describe, and differ with, the artist in the act of creation. “You are playing the wise old granny,” JR says at one point to Agnès, who ripostes, “And you the spirited young man.” Throughout Faces Places, in fact, the people photographed are also filmed reacting to their images, in dialogue not just with the filmmakers but with their own faces.
Read more at the New York Review of Books.