Sunday 23 September 2018

Rolling: "Faces Places"

Important to get out of the house when you're in your eighties. Faces Places forms the latest extension of that wanderlust cinema the director Agnès Varda has pursued ever since she veered off the beaten track of fiction into more essayistic territory some decades back, a film that carries us into the French provinces with the intention of meeting new people, sharing new ideas, and exploring those regions where art and life interact. She's found herself a fellow traveller this time: JR, thirtysomething whizzkid of French photography, whose self-image (pork pie hat, ever-present sunglasses that set his companion to thinking of Jean-Luc Godard) has been cultivated almost as carefully as Varda's Madame Pepperpot look. Put them together, as Faces Places does, and they could be a French Fred and Ginger: he gives her fresh eyes (and we learn her ocular health is not as it was), she gives him wisdom. They've been united by a shared desire to make art of the people for the people, and so we join them hitting the road as part of JR's Inside Out project, touring the backroads of France in a mobile camera truck, taking photographs of the locals that are then converted into huge billposters and pasted to the sides of homes and buildings. So: two artists at the wheel, a truck running on gas and toner, a populace awaiting their close-up. On y va.

The first surprise for British viewers will come from encountering a subtitled movie that so closely resembles an episode of Changing Rooms or DIY SOS in its form. Varda and JR freewheel into town after town, set about transforming the immediate eyeline, then present the results to those who live and work thereabouts. The last remaining tenant in a row of miners' cottages is moved to tears by the permanence this taskforce's art affords her; a farmer stands quietly proud upon seeing his image elevated to a scale usually reserved for A-listers on movie billboards; an abandoned housing estate is filled with life the authorities could never provide. Almost inevitably, Varda is drawn towards her beaches, and to the faces and places of her past, although one of the film's pleasures lies in the realisation that this pint-sized grandmother has become such a national treasure that everyone who falls within her orbit - the hip young JR, a passing gendarme, grizzled blue-collar types who might once have entertained the thought of voting Le Pen - feels obliged to defer to even her more fanciful creative requests. (Having Varda show up in one's hometown to take photos of your nearest and dearest must be like having Judi Dench pop into your community theatre to ask whether or not she could road-test a sonnet or two.)

The steady gathering of portraits - and the assiduous search for the exact right frame: fish on water tanks, dockers' wives on cargo containers - allows Faces Places to develop into a portrait in itself: here is rural France as it is/was at the very beginning of l'ère macronienne. Like the huge portraits that roll out of a slit in the side of JR's van, the film covers a lot of ground. While our creative prime movers are waiting for their photos to develop and the paste to dry, Varda's curious camera scoots off to furnish us with generally diverting sidebars on such diverse subjects as bell-ringing (in both its churchy and Anita Ward senses), goat farming and salt production; we're offered both a terrific sight gag involving a postman, and some consideration of what it feels like to retire. (The suggestion has been made that this will be Varda's final (ad)venture; when asked by JR why she's unafraid of death, her response is transcendentally simple: "Because that'll be that.") You're reminded that Varda's great triumph has been the sheer amount of life - her own life, and the lives of others - she's kneaded into her art; where her fellow New Wavers spent their careers becoming the kind of standalone (in some cases standoffish) figures they once extolled in prose, a collaborative exercise such as the one documented here - shot with JR, reliant on the willing participation of the people - begs reading as a crafty democratisation of the auteur theory, undertaken not by some great man, rather a four-foot-five inch woman.

There is, however, one subject who eludes Varda, not through any failing of her own. Late on, the travelling twosome head to Switzerland for a planned meeting with Godard; the only trouble is that Godard fails to show at the allotted place, leaving behind only a cryptic message for his pursuers. The snub is not untypical - Godard appeared only via videophone at this year's Cannes - but you can see how it hurts Varda, especially after she's paid such fond homage to the Louvre sequence in Bande à part. As the filmmakers rock up outside Godard's shuttered, apparently vacated house, it is as if an old friend no longer wants to come out and play. (Two especially poignant details from this sequence: JR vainly shouting "Jean-Luc?" at an upstairs window, and Varda tying the bag of brioche she's brought to the front door even after bursting into tears.) The inclusion of this unhappy non-rendezvous serves to set up a contrast between two strains of personality-driven art, one outgoing and open-minded, the other solitudinous and sententious, keener to impose itself than initiate any dialogue, far less interested in anything so trivial as people. (Is this just how men get with age?) In the next few years, film historians will have to weigh up both careers, both lives, and accept that both Godard and Varda did much to change our understanding of the cinema - but I think if you had to pick only one to spend any considerable length of time with, the choice would now be very easy. She's the one bringing pastries.

Faces Places is now showing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema. 

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