NYFF 2017: Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places

“Since I saw Faces Places at its premiere at Cannes in May, [Agnès] Varda’s latest documentary has cemented itself on my running list of the year’s best titles,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “Made with the French artist known as JR, the movie is a delightful, tenderly heart-pricking meander through art, life, history, memory and the countryside. As is often the case with Ms. Varda’s movies, this one folds in assorted detours, including a stopover in a Swiss village that poignantly brings her face to face with some of the ghosts that haunt her.”

“Inspired equally by JR’s youthful joie de vivre and the large-scale photographic portraits he produces in his makeshift mobile photo booth, Varda enlists her young counterpart for an impromptu cross-country road trip through France,” writes Jordan Cronk for Cinema Scope. “Along the way, the duo befriends a variety of locals and assorted lovable characters, whom they proceed to enshrine in enormous cut-out images and then plaster them on the sides of nearby homes and buildings. With its travelogue approach and interest in the iconographic potential of everyday people and places, the film plays as a quasi-sequel to Varda’s 1980 L.A. street-art classic Mur murs, which lovingly reflected the city’s cultural diversity through an under-recognized art form.”

At Hyperallergic, Tanner Tafelski reminds us that both artists have been in the news lately. Early last month, “the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences acknowledged Varda’s achievements in cinema by giving her an honorary Oscar. JR’s startling mural of a little boy peering over the border in Tecate, Mexico made a splash in the media.”

And at 4Columns, Melissa Anderson notes that Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, “her quasi-musical about the women’s movement that was the [New York Film Festival’s] opening-night selection in 1977, will screen at this year’s edition as part of the Revivals program.” This very afternoon, too. “A sweet, but never cloying, portrait of an intergenerational friendship and artistic collaboration, Faces Places is also a matter-of-fact meditation on mortality,” writes Anderson. “As Varda and JR scrutinize the headstones in the wee cemetery where Cartier-Bresson is buried, in the tiny town of Montjustin, the near-nonagenarian remarks that she’s looking forward to death because ‘that’ll be that’—Varda’s gallows-humor take, perhaps, on the legendary photographer’s notion of the ‘decisive moment.’”

“The whimsical tone should be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Varda's nonfiction work like The Beaches of Agnès (2008) and The Gleaners and I (2000), but she's also proved, in films such as Le bonheur (1965) and Vagabond (1985), equally adept at pathos,” writes Keith Uhlich. “Glimmers of darkness are everywhere here.”

“Varda continues a profound exploration of creativity and memory in the face of mortality and impermanence,” adds Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “A snapshot of a late friend is reproduced on a seaside rock, only for the tide to wash it away the following morning. Later on, a trio of women married to Le Havre dock workers are perched high on top of stacked crates bearing their amplified photographed likeness, in a playful yet evocative composition. . . . Varda may be struggling with an eye disease, but her vision is as crystalline as ever.”

“Varda and JR advocate a form of communalism that, in its borderline utopian presentation, would be capable of eradicating hostility, even hatred, with the aid of open conversation and artistic imagination,” writes Clayton Dillard at Slant. “What’s remarkable about Faces Places is how these sociological tenets occur through the course of both the filmmakers’ interviews and their playfulness with one another between destinations. In fact, one’s adoration for the film may depend, in part, on how much mileage one gets out of seeing Varda singing along, while cruising down a highway, to Anita Ward’s ‘Ring My Bell.’ For Varda and JR, these shenanigans are part and parcel with their approach to interacting with strangers . . . The filmmakers extend the chance to collaborate with everyone they meet and thereby develop Faces Places into something approaching a manifesto for the possibility of shared happiness.”

“Varda’s subjectivity as an older woman is key to Faces Places,” finds Chelsea Phillips-Carr at PopMatters. “While co-directed with JR, it is her voice which comes through the most: we are seeing through her eyes almost literally at many points in the film. And her experience is specific.”

Back to Tanner Tafelski:Faces Places is a gentle, light, and airy film. Everything that you would expect in a Varda film is there: a subjective and hyper-aware interest in and collaboration with the working class; the familiar imagery of potatoes, faces, and the sea. However, the film feels slight.”

In a similar vein, Jason Ooi, writing for the Film Stage, finds that “the film, even with its unique style and creative flairs, feels altogether a bit conventional. The easy digestibility—a product of its lightness—makes Faces Places very enjoyable in the moment, but also verges on saccharine.”

“The bassline is JR’s caring rapport with Varda, offering an organic way for her own introspections to emerge,” suggests Chloe Lizotte at Screen Slate.

Faces Places “ends up speaking to the power of the still image, while working as a good-natured, free-wheeling, and gentle late-period work from one of our honest-to-goodness living legends,” writes Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey.

At In Review Online, Paul Attard is left with “a general feeling of wonder for the possibilities artist can bring to the world.”

And it’s “arguably one of the best non-fiction features of this still infantile century,” proposes Joshua Brunsting at CriterionCast.

Update, 10/2:Faces Places is a one-in-a-million crowd-pleaser that deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible,” writes the Atlantic’s David Sims. It’s “an arthouse triumph that speaks to so many universal concerns in wonderfully iconoclastic fashion, while telling its subjects’ stories with compassion.”

Update, 10/3: “Many of the areas Varda and JR visit are in the economically troubled regions of France’s rural north,” notes Emily Yoshida at Vulture, “but this being a staunchly apolitical film, such unpleasantries are never brought up. The country they travel through is filled with potential friends, and it’s a nice headspace to live in for an hour and a half.”

Updates, 10/7: “Despite its unassuming, conversational ethos—which is also to say by means of Ms. Varda’s staunchly democratic understanding of her job as a filmmaker—Faces Places reveals itself as a powerful, complex and radical work,” argues A. O. Scott in the New York Times. “Ms. Varda’s modesty is evidence of her mastery, just as her playful demeanor is the expression of a serious and demanding aesthetic commitment. Almost by stealth, but also with cheerful forthrightness, she communicates a rich and challenging array of feelings and ideas. As we contemplate those faces and places we are invited to reflect on the passage of time and the nature of memory, on the mutability of friendship and the durability of art, on the dignity of labor and the fate of the European working class.”

“Varda’s camera does not so much record images as embody them, take on an emphatic physical reality itself, scuttling, surging, touching,” writes Patricia Storace for the New York Review of Books:

It is hard to find a more passionate, though discreet, expression of physical love than the caressing close-ups of the hair, eyes, and face of her mortally ill husband, the director Jacques Demy, in Jacquot de Nantes (1993). And her camera has also been a mirror. She is far from being a deity remote from her creations: her films take into account, whether directly or indirectly, the conditions of her own life at the time of filming. What she grasps or questions in what she is living enters each film. L’Opéra-Mouffe (1958), made during Varda’s first pregnancy, is a diary of the associations, observations, and fears a Paris neighborhood stirs in a pregnant woman (the faces of the alcoholic homeless, for instance, haunt her as a possible future for her child). Daguerréotypes (1976), made after Varda’s second child was born, reflects the physical restrictions motherhood places on a woman; Varda famously ran an electric cable fifty feet from her house—the farthest distance she dared go during the period of caring for her baby—in order to film the shopkeepers on her street. Varda’s physical characteristics are also part of the work of filming; a tiny woman, she made Daguerréotypes standing on a chair. As she has said, “I am not behind the camera, I am in it.”
This element of her work is perhaps most poignantly apparent in Faces Places.

“Her films—whether fictional character studies like Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond or documentaries like Daguerréotypes and The Gleaners and I—are driven by a curiosity that her male peers in the French New Wave never shared,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A.V. Club. “In that influential movement, she stood apart not only as the sole woman in what was otherwise a boys’ club, but as the one director whose work didn’t scream that she’d rather be living in a movie. And yet no other New Wave filmmaker ended up devoting as much of their creativity to documenting their own surroundings and friends. Interesting how that goes.”

“Something of a prank, a farewell, an art project, a buddy comedy, a vox populi tour of the French countryside, and an inquiry into memory and images and what it means to reveal our eyes to the world, Faces Places is a joyous lulu,” writes Alan Scherstuhl in the Village Voice.

At RogerEbert.com, Glenn Kenny finds the closing of Faces Places “puzzling, heartbreaking, but ultimately celebratory. And wobbles the line between documentary and fiction so strongly that the vibrations will linger in your heart for days afterwards.”

Also at RogerEbert.com, Odie Henderson: “Varda’s own failing eyes play a major part in the film’s homestretch, when JR decides to place a huge photo of them on a freight train. The result becomes the defining image of the film—the director’s eyes chugging through the countryside, taking in the universe and enjoying everything it has to offer.”

“In 2017, we tend to think in pictures and videos, rewiring our brains to harvest the sights around us for likes and shares,” writes Soheil Rezayazdi for Filmmaker. “There’s a toxicity in all this, but Faces Places finds the joy in our selfie-saturated age.”

“What a joy it is to have a movie like this in our broken lives right now,” adds Andrew Lapin, writing for NPR.

“I’m not sure I’ll make another film,” Varda tells IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “It’s like boxing—they do an additional match they shouldn’t do. I’m not sure I should do another one. But I also do exhibitions, installations. I’m not going to bed.”

“Each time I saw a film by Agnès I felt a sense of complete freedom in her way of making them and in her way of living,” JR tells Gary M. Kramer, who talks with both directors for BOMB. “When I met her, I saw, it’s not just how she makes film, it’s how she approaches life.”

And Varda and JR are Adam Schartoff’s guests on the latest episode of Filmwax Radio (56’53”).

Updates, 10/8: “So open-hearted is this film, so disarming of all cynicism, that it is next to impossible to find fault with it,” writes Michael Sicinski. “In fact, both with the film itself and the artworks created within the film, Varda and JR show us art in something close to its Kantian ideal.”

Movie City News points us to Jake Coyle’s interview with Varda for the AP: “Understanding, empathy, sharing. I think they are beautiful words. They are not ridiculous.”

Update, 10/9: “The interview is short,” writes Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com, “she’s tired and feels less and less like speaking English, but as she's preparing to stand she has a thought, perhaps linked to the silent film she made with Godard. ‘JR . . . the next film . . . it should be silent. We should make a silent film.’ How does your heart not leap seeing a woman who keeps threatening to retire unable to stop finding inspiration?”

Updates, 10/11: “More than a cinematographer or a photographer, more than a documentarist or a narrative artist, Varda is an iconographer, whose stories and explorations, recollections and encounters, are magnified into images that are, in effect, devotional,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “Whether festive or mournful, tragic or comedic, they embrace the fullness of experience and emotion with a fervent grandeur, which is why, in Faces Places, her work with JR becomes, in its own way, iconic of itself—his murals are transformed, here, into symbols of her own artistic passion.”

Lauren Du Graf talks with Varda and JR for Reverse Shot.

Updates, 10/12: “Perhaps the most telling comment in terms of what the film has to say about work is the comment of a man named Amaury, the technical inspector at a chemical plant where hydrochloric acid and other dangerous substances are made,” writes Jonathan Romney for Film Comment. “It’s his job to check the equipment, to make sure everyone’s safe. ‘It’s exciting to have a meaningful job,’ he comments—and the line jumps out at you as altogether revelatory. When did you last hear someone say something like that in a film—communicate how their work matters to them, makes them happy?”

“Color me beguiled,” writes Marjorie Baumgarten in the Austin Chronicle. “The film is personal, playful, soulful, and kind. The only problem with Faces Places is that it ultimately ends, and subsequently breaks the spell.”

Update, 10/14: “For Varda, this is a spinoff of sorts to The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008); for me it’s a welcome introduction to the work of JR,” writes Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Updates, 10/25: “Like The Gleaners and I (2000), Varda breathes life into diffuse material, finding the grain in each encounter,” writes Ray Pride in Newcity. “What’s fresh and vital in the fabric of Faces Places is the melancholy bond between two artists at different points in their career, amusing one another while fashioning the world into a shared vision.”

In Gleaners, Varda “helps us see the hyperactive cycle of our materialism and, through the act of glanage, shows us a way to consume less and to engage with our environments more,” writes Lauren Elkin for the Paris Review.

Updates, 10/27: For Stuart Klawans, writing in the Nation, “the overriding impression—perfect in a film dedicated to photography—is of the potential for the human personality to abide. Look at JR’s photomural of an elderly woman living in a semi-derelict coal-mining town, after he’s pasted her image onto the row house she refuses to abandon. You see the face of someone strong enough to have been made from bricks.”

For the TIFF Review, Chandler Levack talks with Varda about “being the only woman in the French New Wave, juggling motherhood and filmmaking, and making space for women in film.”

Update, 10/28:Scott Pfeiffer for the Cine-List: “I love this sportive, altogether magical film—it's light and simple and funny, and all the more profound for it.”

Update, 11/12: “In no small part,” writes Jackson Arn for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Varda’s films delight because they have a secret weapon: Varda herself. Since 1994, she’s narrated and starred in all of her own work and structured it unapologetically around her own interests and experiences. When, in Beaches of Agnès, she changes the subject, it’s because she felt like doing so—end of story. This is a bold strategy, but one that usually works, at least for me, thanks to Varda’s extraordinary unpretentiousness. The question Faces Places implies, though, is: Must a documentary about the wanderings of a lovely person be lovely to watch?”

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