Just to be upfront, I’m upset by a bunch of Oscar results this year. But seriously, how could they give Best Documentary to Icarus when something as beautiful and humane as Faces Places was in the race?
I learned about Agnès Varda in a film class and have since been a fangirl of hers. As the leading female director of the French New Wave, she has approached both fiction and documentary with her experimental yet always personal cinematic vision.
This time, at 89, she set out on a journey with JR, a 33-year-old photographer and mural artist. Despite their more-than-twofold age gap and different professions, the two develop a warm and fascinating chemistry that almost remind me of Harold and Maude, my favorite cinema couple of all time. Varda and JR drive around backcountry France in JR’s magical van, a mobile photo booth equipped with a printer that spits out giant posters and even decorated to look like an old camera on the outside. They stop at places, take pictures of people they talk to and plaster their blown-up faces on different surfaces, whether it be the side of a barn, a residential building or a bunch of containers by the port.
There’s never been a film quite like this. While the episodic structure might make it look like one of those reality travel TV shows at the outset, the film focuses on themes of space and community and touches upon a couple of others. At one point, they visit an old mining town where a row of deserted brick houses are slated for demolition. One woman, Jeanine, insists on living there for the memories she has accumulated through years. Moved by her connection with the place, JR and Varda paste photos of Jeanine and the miners on the houses as an homage. Jeanine comes out of her house to see it the next morning, transfixed. “What can I say? Nothing,” she repeats. Indeed, it was a moment of pure emotion that almost transcends language, when history and the present coincide and our shared humanity emerges.
And that was not the only time we meet the working class. In a factory in Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban, the two spend a day talking to two shifts of different workers. One man tells Varda, jokingly, that “we factory workers do go to the cinema sometimes,” and Varda replies “we cinema people are at the factory now.” And they laughed and talked about what it’s like to work at the factory. Her unassuming, compassionate attitude suggests the inherent value of this documentary: to be tender and loving even though the world we inhabit now may be divided. The film certainly has its own underlying politics: the bourgeoisie is entirely absent, and the labor is portrayed in heroic scales both literally and metaphorically. However, politics is never the focal point. Rather, we see people who always express pride in their work and passion for their lives, even through difficult and constantly changing times.
As a film student, I have to watch some arcane artsy films sometimes and I wonder: are they just too good for me to enjoy? I’d rather believe, for the sake of my own ego or whatever else, that the ultimate purpose of art is about people and for people, and the best art should allow the widest possible audience to enjoy it. Maybe that’s why I’m so touched by this incredible collaboration between these two artists who shared a loving curiosity for people. When faces of workers, housewives, baristas and farmers get blown up to the size of an entire building and become attractions of all these small industrial towns, the ordinary is seen as the subject of art and hence obtains power.
That may bring us to the question of “seeing”, which has been lurking in the background with Varda and JR’s different issues with it: her eyesight is failing due to age and illness, and he never takes off his shades as part of his artistic persona. Throughout the film, her quest is to probe him to take off his shades while his is to figure out what it’s like to “see” with her vision. In a montage sequence starting with Varda taking photos of a monstrous monkfish at a market, a closeup of the fish eye immediately cuts to Varda’s own eye as she takes a ophthalmological exam. She also playfully mentions the famed eye-slitting scene in Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, which is delightful. JR then assembles a group of people to hold up letters, as in an eye chart, and has them move up and down to commemorate her experience seeing the world. Varda is aging with deteriorating health, but she has a unique way of dealing with her own vulnerability that deserves respect rather than sympathy.
Regardless, JR is not nearly as honest and willing to fully expose himself. At the climax, Varda plans to visit her fellow New Wave giant Jean-Luc Godard, of whom JR reminds her. Of course the “unpredictable” Godard shuts his door, leaving an enigmatic note that only Varda may understand. She starts crying like a child, probably out of anger, disappointment, or nostalgia for their days that are long gone. Luckily, a touching minor success soon follows: to soothe her, JR takes off his shades for the first time. We finally see him through Varda’s blurry vision. She looks at him for a few seconds, then says “let’s look at the lake.” And they turn to look at the quiet yet protean Lake Geneva. The credit rolls up. And everything feels perfect; you would love the world again.
Faces Places will be playing at Cornell Cinema this Sunday.
Ruby Que is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org