March 2, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: FACES PLACES (Visages Villages)

Directed by and Starring Agnes Varda & JR. (2017/89 min).

Though nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Oscars, Faces Places doesn't seem like it would have much of a chance of winning. Not because it isn't worthy, but the film isn't about a dead musician, criminal injustice or a dark chapter in recent history.

Instead, Face Places is a cute, disarming and ultimately heartfelt chronicle of a road-trip taken by Agnes Varda & JR, who also directed the film. They embark on a journey through France, plastering their unique brand of photographic art on abandoned homes, railroad cars, barns, stone ruins...anywhere it can be appreciated - however temporarily - by the locals.

Varda is an 83-year-old filmmaker who first gained fame as part of the French New Wave movement and still revered for her visual style. JR is a young photographer/street artist who appears to specialize in mural-sized portraits. This veritable odd couple have a mutual respect for each other and the people they choose as subjects for their art. They visit a wide variety of locations, from inner cities to rural farms to coastal villages, shooting those who live or work there, then blowing up the photos to massive proportions and creatively pasting them in places which best represent the community.

This unfortunate gentleman is about to discover not everyone in the neighborhood enjoys the luxury of indoor plumbing.
The results are visually impressive, often haunting, but that's only part of this story. Faces Places is also about the people they encounter in their travels. We learn about their pasts, their families, how their chosen occupations have influenced or directed their lives. Especially interesting - occasionally quite moving - are their reactions to the art they've become part of. Episodically presented, we spend a short time with each individual or group before moving on to another location...and another story. My personal favorite segments are the amusing visit to some goat farms and a poignant story of an old woman who's the last resident of a tract neighborhood scheduled for demolition.

Agnes and JR search The Louvre for Dogs Playing Poker.
The one constant is the relationship between Agnes and JR, who don't have a master plan beyond hitting the road and seeing what happens. Though technically a documentary, Faces Places plays like a road movie with these two as the central characters, and we learn much about them during the trip (especially, Agnes, who seems somewhat melancholy, despite always appearing in good spirits). They are genuinely likable and appear to grow closer to each other during the course of the film. This culminates in a surprisingly emotional climax that's truly touching.

I'd love to see these two defy the odds and the stage on Oscar night to receive a statue. Faces Places tells a sweet, visually-arresting story that's as captivating as any fictional "personal journey" film that comes to mind. This is a small winner all-around.

FEATURETTE: "Chance is the Best Assistant: Agnes Varda and JR on Faces Places" (interview with the filmmakers); "Music" (a feature on composer Matthieu Chedid).
"LETTERS" and "CABIN" (essentially two deleted scenes)

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