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Cannes 2017: two new road trip documentaries paint moving portraits of France and the US

Both films deliver self-referential examinations of the countries themselves and the hearts that beat beneath them.

Faces Places
JR and Agnes Varda with one of their art installations in Visages, Villages
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

There’s really no better way to get to know a country than to road trip through it. Two films that just debuted at the Cannes Film FestivalFaces Places and Promised Land — take that dictum seriously.

In both films, the directors set out in a car to travel through their home countries (France and the United States, respectively), in search of the stories, people, buildings, and art that define each one. Both deliver self-referential portraits of the countries themselves and the hearts that beat beneath them. France and America are very different, but it turns out the best way to take the pulse of each is quite similar.

Faces Places finds that the people and buildings of a place are woven into its fabric

The portrait that Faces Places creates of France is quite literally a portrait. The film 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 pastes them onto buildings and walls, each of them reaching several stories high.

But the real star of the film is the friendship between JR and legendary Belgian film director Agnès Varda, whose work was central to the development of the French New Wave movement. The pair — whose difference in age is 55 years — met after years of admiring one another’s work and 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, trying to find good subjects — both human and architectural — for their work.

The outcome is unexpectedly 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 in speechless tears, moved by the honor the project pays to their memory.

Visages, Villages
A portrait of miners on a building where they once lived.

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 eye illness. She 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. (Godard’s most recent work, Goodbye to Language, won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2014; there’s at least one other film screening at Cannes this year that has Godard as its subject, Le Redoutable, which will be called Godard Mon Amour when it’s released in the US.)

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 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 all meant to be ephemeral — images 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 altering them, lest the places’ memories wind up altered or lost.

A still from Faces Places
In Visages, Villages, faces and buildings matter to places.

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. It seems both beautiful and foreign to American ears, for instance, 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. 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 speaks to a particular cultural mindset that knits art into the fabric of public life. Experiencing and talking about art is just part of their lives. A few times I caught myself wondering how the same film would have gone in the US. I expect the result would be quite different.

The King finds a divided America in Elvis’s wake

While it’s only partly about art, The King, directed by Eugene Jarecki, takes a similar approach as Faces Places, but with a focus on the cultural history of America. And in this film, the country’s psyche is funneled not through many faces, but just one in particular: that of Elvis Presley.

Jarecki and his crew acquired Elvis’s car (the film doesn’t explain how) and started driving from Tupelo, Mississippi, where the future King of Rock and Roll was born. They traveled to Memphis, then to New York, then continued out west to Los Angeles, over to Vegas, and back to Mississippi. Along the way, they revisited major points of interest from Elvis’s life and call in a wide variety of people (sometimes planned, sometimes not) to explain and contextualize them.

Early on, it emerges that The King is not really a film about Elvis — the King is a proxy for examining post-war America, and how the country arrived at its present state of the eroded American Dream (which is about the only thing everyone who appears in the film agrees upon). A cast of celebrities, musicians, and other interesting people (Ethan Hawke, David Simon, Alec Baldwin, James Carville, Emmylou Harris, M. Ward, and many more) hop into the car to play music or talk for a while about Elvis, America, and how art, politics, and life influence and imitate one another.

Promised Land
Found the King.

The road trip is cut together with copious archival footage of Elvis, and commentators (from Van Jones to Greil Marcus to Mike Myers) both fill in the gaps and argue with or poke fun at Jarecki’s approach. This adds layers to the film — too many layers, to be honest. The King was shot throughout the year preceding the 2016 presidential election, so that footage is woven in as well. The result is half great, half undisciplined, with a too-pat conclusion that probably should have left some strings untied.

However, Elvis as a metaphor for America is a genius of an idea, and that central theme of The King really works, even though it feels sometimes like the musician’s life is being edited and bent to fit a narrative. The film tries to keep everything feeling natural — a conversation near its midpoint works hard to convince us that Jarecki has no idea where his project is going. (That’s unfortunately a little too plausible at times.)

And if the word “metaphor” is repeated a bit too much, it’s not unwarranted. As one person says of Elvis late in the film, “He is a living metaphor for any picture of America you might want to draw.”

That’s a key to the film. Several points about Elvis and his cultural legacy are under dispute in The King — for instance, whether Elvis and his first producer, Sam Phillips, were doing important anti-segregation work by taking “Negro music” mainstream, or whether they were stealing African-American culture and profiting immensely off of it, or maybe both.

Promised Land
Playing in Elvis’s car.

Later, a debate arises over whether Elvis was just a good American boy with a dream in his heart and dance in his hips, or whether he was a sort of mid-century entertainer in the Jimmy Fallon mold, unable or unwilling to use his power and platform to speak out in the cultural turmoil of the 1960s. These sorts of competing questions pop up all over The King and Jarecki, to his credit, lets them all simmer, without providing a definitive answer.

That’s the most accurate picture of America that this American can imagine: a land of competing narratives, where the only thing everyone can agree on is that lots of stuff has gone wrong, even if we can’t agree on exactly what that stuff is. The language of “two Americas” has reached a fever pitch in the months following the election, and The King feels a little prescient in how it handles those narratives. The competing narratives about the nature of Elvis’s cultural contribution is a reminder that the two Americas have existed for not just tens, but hundreds of years. The King makes no promises that they can be woven back together, though it — like The King — has a hunch that art can help.

Visages, Villages and Promised Land premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19 and 20.

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