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Review: Visages Villages is a deceptively whimsical artistic journey

In Faces Places a pair of filmmakers travel around to small towns in France taking photographs of the people they find there.

4 out of 4 stars

Visages Villages (Faces Places)
Written by
Agnès Varda and JR
Directed by
Agnès Varda and JR

It always annoyed the French filmmaker Agnès Varda that her famous colleague Jean-Luc Godard would hide behind his sunglasses. As she collaborates with the guerrilla photographer JR on their delightful travelogue Visages Villages (Faces Places), she tells this to the younger artist because he does the same thing. All the time. JR, best known these days because he has been provocatively erecting his large-scale photographs at the U.S.-Mexican border, must uphold both a street artist's anonymity and an image of mischievous cool: He dresses in black, sports a small fedora and never appears without his signature shades.

As this unlikely pair travel small-town France together, photographing the people they meet and posting the images in streets and workplaces, Varda and JR keep returning to those pesky glasses. How can JR remain hidden when he asks others to reveal themselves? And will Godard himself, now living in seclusion in his own village, ever appear? Full of encounters with ordinary people, Faces Places is a film whose deceptively whimsical trajectory quietly builds an investigation into identity, celebrity and self-revelation in the age of the selfie.

As the two filmmakers, who are 33 and 88 years old, visit farms, factories and abandoned houses, it also inevitably becomes a film about change in rural France. Varda and JR begin in a northern coal-mining town where they find historic photographs of miners and paste up huge enlargements of them on a row of workers' housing slated for demolition. In one of the film's most poignant moments, they photograph the last holdout in the row, a stubborn senior touched to find her own large image decorating the facade of her narrow home. At least her endurance will be celebrated before the house comes tumbling down.

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But a shy young waitress in another village is not so sure of the results when her image in the town square suddenly becomes one of the most famous art works in France, visited by tourists and blasted out on social media. Why all the attention? As the film celebrates regular folk, it refers only obliquely to the effects of Varda and JR's own respective brands of celebrity. The elusive Godard, Varda's contemporary in the New Wave of French cinema, becomes something of a symbolic stand-in for the attention artistry can elicit – until JR photographs Varda's toes and plasters them on railway cars, sharing her intimate details with an unsuspecting population.

Similarly, the pair's conversations and encounters have a slightly scripted feel that seems to wink at the viewer: We know this can't all be pure serendipity, especially the final outcome of the Godard chase, yet the filmmakers play their game with such kind-hearted inquisitiveness, it's impossible not to be seduced by the results.

They wind up in the port of Le Havre – after a debate as to whether it counts as a village – where they photograph not the dock workers themselves but their wives, whose images are then enlarged to heroic proportions and mounted on stacks of shipping containers. Here is art that makes you look twice and think again: It is a remarkable moment, cleverly oblique in its approach yet brilliantly focused in its results, the product of a cross-generational collaboration that itself is testament to the endurance of French cinema.

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