One Word, Masterpiece: A Review of Faces Places
Brannavan Gnanalingam considers Agnès Varda’s Faces Places. Warning, spoilers are included in this review.
There is no doubt that Agnès Varda will go down as one of the more important filmmakers of the 20th Century. This is not only in part because she was one of key originators of the French New Wave, but also because she was one of the first female directors to make a dent in what is still a very male-dominated industry.
Varda's first films, La Pointe Courte (1954) and Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961) had free-wheeling styles, used non-actors, and focused on the beauty of everydayness. Cléo in particular, focused on a young woman working through the fragility of life, mirrored by the then revolutionary real-time shooting. Her subsequent short films interrogate the fragility of images (she was a trained photographer) and critique the objectivity of documents. While her themes are heavy, her films have a very specific playfulness to them. It all culminated in the spectacular documentary, The Gleaners and I (2000), in which Varda creates one of the most moving odes in cinema: she toasts the forgotten, the discarded, and the accidental (in life and in art).
It's useful to know Varda's past films when approaching Faces Places, although that isn't required. Faces Places is likely to be her last film, as the now 89 year old is losing her eyesight. It is a culmination of what she has been working through in her films for over 60 years. This time around, she has found a sidekick in young artist JR. JR has the potential to be extremely annoying: très hip and extremely self-confident, he struts around almost as if he's the legend, not Varda. However, he and Varda form such a winning combination – he brings back Varda's famous exuberance, and he is clearly influenced by her presence in how he approaches his subjects.
Varda and JR travel through small-town France taking photographs of 'ordinary' French people. They then blow up the photos and place them on various monuments, buildings, and er, rubble. The film captures the reaction of the subjects to their giant photos. It also gives a sense of how fragile those images are. One, captures a dying street, in which all of the old miners' houses are to be demolished. Another recreates a photo that Varda took in the '50s, but which will eventually be washed away by the sea. It becomes more and more about Varda, as her thematic preoccupations throughout her career get one last spin. Faces Places imprints these ideas on various strangers' faces.
Spoilers in this paragraph. The film culminates in an attempted meeting with Jean-Luc Godard. Godard and Varda were close friends in the 1960s and are the two last surviving members of the New Wave. Varda in fact made a short silent film staring Godard – looking suspiciously like JR – in Les Fiancés de Pont MacDonald, which featured in Cléo de 5 à 7. However, they grew apart over time – particularly following the death of Varda's husband Jacques Demy. Godard grew even more cantankerous (if that were possible) and avant-garde in "exile" in Switzerland. JR and Varda go to find him to reconcile. However, Godard stands them up in heart-breaking, cruel fashion (including a dig at Demy). Maybe this was all part of a grand scheme: Varda and Godard were two of cinema's greatest proponents of "accidents" making for better art than structure. And indeed, it has a devastating impact in showing the passing of time and friendships, and that as much as we want life to end happily, it very rarely does. It's a firm disavowal of nostalgia. However, there is also a sly wink: the final shot of this film has a clear visual and thematic parallel to Godard's last film, Goodbye to Language (2014). Similar to Godard's film, Faces Places re-contextualises cinema's language and taps into an everydayness and zeitgeist that is too often ignored by narrative cinema. It's almost as if Godard and Varda are hugging in the background. These are filmmakers, who despite reaching the end of their careers, are looking forward, not backwards.
It all sounds heavy, but it's anything but. It's funny, sad, life-affirming and just quietly, a masterpiece.