The new documentary Faces Places paints a quite literal portrait of France. The film (whose French title is Visages, Villages) chronicles a leg of the “Inside Outside Project,” a roving art initiative in which the accomplished French street artist JR makes enormous portraits of people he meets and then pastes them onto buildings and walls, each of them reaching several stories high.
But the real star of Faces Places is the friendship between JR and legendary Belgian film director Agnès Varda. Varda’s work was central to the development of the French New Wave movement, and when the pair — whose age difference is 55 years — met after of admiring one another’s work, they decided to collaborate on a project together.
Faces Places is the result: a playful, surprisingly powerful document of an attempt to understand France by looking closely at its people. JR and Varda travel the country, bringing the Inside Outside van with them and talking to people in small hamlets and tiny villages as they seek out good subjects — both human and architectural — for their work.
The outcome is surprisingly moving. A woman named Jeanine, for instance, is the last person living in a set of old miners’ homes slated for demolition. The miners were an integral part of the community, and many of the people living nearby tell stories of their fathers and friends who worked in the mines. The homes are the last link to that history. Pulling together old photographs and taking new ones, JR and Varda paste images of the people who once dwelt in the homes to the exteriors of the homes themselves. Jeanine is speechless, moved by the honor the project pays to their memory.
As the film goes on, JR and Varda paste images all over the place: factory workers onto the walls of the factory where they have spent their careers; a farmer onto his barn, where he looms enormously; a bashful waitress onto the wall of an old building in a town center; the wives of dock workers onto a set of dock crates stacked hundreds of feet high.
Meanwhile, the friendship between JR and Varda deepens and grows more vulnerable. Varda is feisty and fabulous, sharp as a tack but losing her sight because of an illness. She frequently pesters JR to remove his trademark sunglasses so she can try to see his eyes; when they go to visit JR’s 100-year-old grandmother, the grandmother laughs at the suggestion that he might do it. Varda reminisces about her friends from decades earlier, including French New Wave patriarch Jean-Luc Godard, who winds up figuring importantly in the film.
Near the beginning of Faces Places, Varda says that JR’s work of taking photos of faces does what she always wants to do, which is freeze images of the people she meets before they slip out of her memory forever. Later, after an image the artists paste to a giant abandoned beach bunker is virtually erased overnight by the elements, JR remarks that his work is meant to be ephemeral — something that will eventually be worn away.
It is perhaps unexpected, then, that JR and Varda find a kindred spirit in one another. But they both recognize that the people and the constructed environment of a place are as much a part of its landscape as the actual landscape. And they see, too — in a way that feels endemic to the French way of looking at the world — that places are layered with memory, and that people ought to tread very lightly when considering making changes them, lest the places’ memories wind up altered or lost.
Faces Places is primarily about its directors, but it’s also a broader portrait — writ large, appropriately — of ordinary, mostly rural French people talking about how they see the world. For instance, it seems both beautiful and foreign to American ears to hear a factory worker proclaim that the idea of being driven to “produce, produce, produce” is a blight on the world, proposing that people seek contentment instead.
It’s also remarkable that nobody on camera questions the project or seems reluctant to participate. They’re interested in how JR and Varda choose their subjects, and they’re curious about why the artists have showed up in their town. But everyone loves the results and has thoughtful things to say, about the function of art and the pride they feel in seeing their community come together to help with such an endeavor. Nobody seems to think it’s particularly strange that an old lady with a funny haircut and a young man in dark glasses and a fedora would want to paste huge pictures to the walls of decrepit structures. It’s beautiful. That’s good enough.
Faces Places is quite a moving film, and it speaks to a particular cultural mindset that knits art into the fabric of public life. Experiencing and talking about art are a regular part of these people’s lives. A few times I caught myself wondering what it would have been like to make the film in the US. The result, I suspect, would have been quite different.
Faces Places debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May and opens in limited release in the US on October 6.