Artists from two generations — the filmmaker Agnès Varda and the street artist JR — explore photography and memory in the most engaging ways possible in “Faces Places,” a documentary that’s as funny and as insightful as they are.
The premise sounds like a dumb sitcom: Varda, the beloved icon of the French New Wave, goes on a road trip around rural France with JR, the hotshot Parisian photographer and street artist. She’s now 89, he’s 34. What wacky hijinks would ensue?
As it turns out, the age difference means nothing. The mischievous twinkle in Varda’s eye shows she’s still in tune with the artistic impulses she had as a young rebel, hanging out with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy (whom she married in 1962 and was with until his death in 1990). And JR clearly worships Varda’s work as a filmmaker and photographer.
What the movie, directed by Varda and JR, shows is a wonderful collaboration of equals. They hop into his truck, which is equipped with a portable photo booth and giant black-and-white printer. In one town, they take pictures of locals in the booth, then print poster-size images that are then pasted on the walls. In another town, Varda photographs a woman with a borrowed parasol, then JR prints a three-story-high version of that photo that he and his crew plaster on the side of the cafe where the woman waits tables.
Sometimes the results are quite moving. The artists come to a row of abandoned houses that were once home to the laborers at a nearby coal mine. JR blows up old photos of the miners and plasters them down the row — all except for one house, the last one still occupied. Varda talks to and photographs the woman who lives there, and JR pastes that woman’s face on the side of her house. Her reaction is priceless.
Varda and JR are as interested in the reaction to their installations as they were with the art itself. Universally, the reaction of the locals is to whip out a smartphone and take a picture of the art, often a selfie — turning an artwork about an old form of photography into a commentary on a current form. In both cases, the reason is the same: to preserve a memory before it vanishes.
The fondness Varda and JR have for each other is equally precious. There’s a running joke about how Varda, whose eyes are faltering, never sees JR’s eyes, as he never takes off his sunglasses. (She references an old film with Godard, where he does the same thing.) The final punchline gives “Faces Places” a satisfying end, a delightful look at how even artists can be touched by one another’s work.
* * * 1/2
Agnès Varda, one of the last figures of the French New Wave, and Parisian street artist JR collaborate in this free-spirited documentary.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City).
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 10.
Rating • PG for brief nude images and thematic elements.
Running time • 89 minutes; in French with subtitles.