Last weekend, in the drowsiness of the winter and the lockdown, I finally watched Faces Places; the two-voice documentary film by Agnès Varda and JR, released in 2017. Travelling across France from one village to another in JR’s truck converted into a photography studio, the two accomplices set off to meet faces and their stories.
On the road they invite the people they meet to enter in the photo booth on wheels to capture their portraits. The portrait is then printed in large format within five seconds on the side of the truck. JR transforms them into huge murals that he pastes onto the walls of their villages.
From faces to places
Together they take us from the North of France in an old mining village to meet the last inhabitant of a series of houses destined to be demolished, to the South in the Midi for a bell show by the local carillonneur, passing through Normandy where we discover a bunker that has fallen from a cliff in the middle of a beach. At each stop of their journey based on their subjects’ portraits or archival photos they leave their marks, as giant as they are ephemeral.
JR returns to the port of Le Havre to meet the dockers who had assisted him in his Women Are Heroes project, this time with an idea by Agnès Varda. She calls on the dockers’ wives to highlight the life of these women in this very masculine world. Their full-length portraits are glued to piles of containers as “three big totems”, while they are each lifted into a container at the level of their own hearts. From their open containers they dominate the whole port like “bird women”!
A little further down the road, JR takes pictures of Agnès Varda’s feet and eyes and pastes them on a freight train. Little bits of Agnès are then rolling across France! To a gentleman who was wondering about the reason for this strange venture, Agnès Varda answers « The goal is the power of imagination. We’ve given ourselves the freedom, JR and I, to imagine things and ask people if we can express our imagination on their turf ».
The whole movie is punctuated by unexpected visits and scenes between the two friends and their personal stories. They evoke the aging body of Agnès Varda, visit JR’s grandmother, lost friends and Jean-Luc Godard. It is difficult to mention every stop of their journey but I let you continue the adventure with them, on board of their strange vessel. 😉
So who are Agnès Varda and JR?
In this social epic, both of these committed artists give a voice to ordinary people, to those who do not have the power in our society, so that they can tell their own stories whilst at the same time telling a piece of the history of contemporary France. Agnès Varda and JR have a 55 year age gap and had only just met when they started this project. Their shared passion for people and stories and their mutual admiration are the starting point for this film full of spontaneity and poetry.
Faces Places is Agnès Varda‘s latest film. She is 88 years old at the time of shooting and it is ironically her first collaboration behind the camera as co-director. Photographer, visual artist and director close to the Rive Gauche movement and a figure of the New Wave, she has directed numerous films and several documentaries. The subject of muralism and street art is not new to her. In 1980 she directed Mur Murs, a documentary on the monumental murals of Los Angeles.
JR is 33 years old in the film and already has an impressive career as a photographer and urban contemporary artist. French and international street art icon, he does not define himself as a street artist, or even as a photographer. He prefers the expression “urban artivist”, or as he says in Faces Places, construction worker since he spends most of his time on scaffolding to paste up his images!
The final word
Faces Places is a movie about friendship, eyes, horns, toes, cinema, glasses, lives, memories, art, fish, travel… A story made up of many small individual stories that make up history! It is also an artistic and human adventure between Agnès Varda and JR. The story of an extraordinary friendship that is built on the road, as the two artists unveil and recount life stories to each other, but not too much! Their personas remain untouched and JR’s mask will not fall, like any true (street) artist!
Faces Places is a film that unveils a fair amount of reality while the magic happens in the foreground!