If everyone looked at strangers in the same way as French New Wave icon Agnes Varda (Cléo from 5 to 7, Vagabond), the world would be a much kinder place. Indeed, when Faces Places begins with the Belgian-born filmmaker and oldest ever Academy Award nominee hitting the road with street artist JR, the octagenarian can't hide her excitement. "I'm always game to go towards villages," she explains, "toward simple landscapes, toward faces." It's with honesty and humour that she expands upon why: "In fact, JR is fulfilling my greatest desire. To meet new faces and photograph them, so they don't fall down the holes of my memory."
So commences Varda's 22nd film, one of this year's best documentary Oscar contenders. Co-directed by JR, the movie centres on the pair's jovial jaunts through the French countryside. Zipping about in JR's custom-made vehicle — a van with an in-built large-scale photo printer — Varda and her younger companion do just what the doco's title promises: they take photos of different faces in different places. The photographs are her obsession; for him, it's just the start. Thanks to his distinctive car's printing abilities, it's not long before JR is standing in a cherry picker, zooming up the exterior of rustic, historic, often crumbling buildings and pasting the giant photos on their facades.
As pieces of large-scale art, the results of their efforts are never less than striking, each installation towering down in all of its detailed glory. Moreover, their odd couple collaboration makes for a heartwarming project, requiring and encouraging openness, curiosity and warmth. Wide smiles beam from lofty heights, sparking wide smiles from those below — regardless whose portrait is on the wall, or if it's a goat instead. A sense of community also springs up around the photographs, cultivated not only by something as simple as paper stuck on buildings, but by the willingness to pay a stranger some attention.
"I like your laughing eyes," Varda tells one woman, whose likeness will soon adorn a stack of dockside shipping containers. "We wanted to pay homage to you," she tells another, who refuses to move out of her slated-for-demolition home in an old mining town. With her friendly, empathetic chatter and her distinguishing mop of grey and red hair, Varda looms as large over the project as the images she makes with JR. As the duo roam through small yet lively villages, Varda makes new memories while reminiscing about older ones — about love, work, times passed, friends lost and past moments immortalised in earlier photos. She's looking forwards and backwards in tandem, observing, sifting and making sense of her lengthy life in the process.
Of course, all photos, films, paintings and the like are informed as much by the artist's aims as their experiences. Faces Places doesn't pretend to coin this idea, but rather explores it in a thoughtful and affectionate manner. In her travels, in the people she meets and in her blossoming friendship with a man six decades her junior, Varda interrogates how she chooses to capture her existence as it's inching towards an end. Well known for making personal documentaries across her career, hers is a sometimes melancholy but always enchanting journey, accepting the changes that time brings and acknowledging the fact that nothing is permanent. Served up with charm and heart, that's a perspective we could all benefit from embracing.