Documentary films have a freedom seldom granted to feature films to flit from one thing to another, held together by the thin thread of the narrator's curiosity. Some documentaries choose a more serious path, which is often cautionary and can usually be encapsulated in a simple statement: the world is heating up; you shouldn't eat at McDonald's; killing sharks to feed epicurean tastes is wrong; war is hell; grizzly bears are dangerous. There's nothing wrong with that approach, and I have found repeatedly that seeing such weighty film is far more rewarding than merely acknowledging with a yawn the truths they're attempting to underscore.
Yet Faces, Places opts for the more discursive, playful, picaresque approach, and it works. It was directed by Agnes Varda, whose film roots extend back to the French Nouvelle Vague of the late 1950s. A long-time friend of Jean-Luc Godard ( who is also still making thoughtful, quixotic, and bizarre documentaries) Varda's recent films, such as The Gleaners and Me, have a gentler edge, or no edge at all, and they're more firmly rooted than Godard's in rural sensibilities and affection for working people.
In Faces, Places she teams up with JR, a photographer and muralist I'd never heard of, to travel the back roads of France celebrating the lives of common workers by creating huge photo-based murals on the walls of factories, barns, villas, and other structures. They visit the worker housing of unemployed coal miners in the northeast; they create a mural of a young waitress in the tourist village of Bonnieux in the Luberon mountains; they do a long mural of the workers at a modern industrial plant that manufactures hydrochloric acid; and they create an enormous mural in the container port of LeHavre of three women who work there.
And let's not forget the extended visit to a goat farm, where the discussion turns to whether or not it's ethical to remove their horns, and the interview with another farmer who manages 2,000 acres all by himself with the help of seven huge machines. Once they've finished pasting a fifty-foot-tall reproduction of his image on the wall of his barn, they say to him: "You'd going to be the most famous farmer in town." To which he replies with a sheepish grin, "I already am."
It's important to note that Agnes and JR take a genuine interest in the people they're using as models. They interview many of the subjects about their work and their lives. And the workers involved seem eager to work together with their factory colleagues and JR's mobile production team to create something positive for their communities. Everyone recognizes that the murals are made out of paper and won't last forever. One image, pasted at low tide onto the side of a crumbled concrete bunker left over from WWII, is obliterated by the next high tide and gone before morning.
Several segments are devoted to Agnes and JR in conversation about their ongoing film, their unlikely May December friendship—she's 89, he might be 35—and why JR refuses to take off his sunglasses. We get to watch them eat French pasties, drink cafe au lait, chase through the halls of a deserted Louvre, etc. They visit JR's grandmother, and he takes some very fine photos of Varda's tiny feet, which he later enlarges and applies to the sides of a railroad car.
What's the point? Art can be an occasion for celebration, fellow-feeling, and fun. Various lines of work are worth knowing about. Odd couples are interesting. Rural France is still pretty nice.
What does JR look like without his sunglasses? We still don't know. He does take them off at one point, but we see his face only from Varda's point of view, and she has horrible eyesight. It's just a blur.
I suspect he looks a lot like Jean-Luc Godard.
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I suppose many film-goers don't have all that much affection for the golden age of French films. But some of us cut our cinephile teeth, so to speak, on The 100 Blows, My Night at Maud's, Pierrot le Fou, Shoot the Piano Player, Mon Oncle d'Amerique, and other now largely forgotten classics. Even the lesser Rohmer films had a certain appeal. And the string of French hits continued, albeit at a lesser rate, with A Sunday in the County (Tavernier), Un Coeur en Hiver (Sautet), Va Savoir (Rivette), and so one.
This summer a three-hour documentary arrived in town, My Journey Through French Films, devoted to Bertrand Tavernier's retrospective analysis of the French movies that inspired him and influenced his own work. My thumbnail review: yes, everyone loves film clips ... but there was not enough Renoir, too much Jean Gabin, too much Jacques Becker.
Maybe Part 2 will be better?