New York Film Festival, Day 1: Faces, Places (2017) | 2 or 3 Things I Know About Film >> Film Film reviews, essays, analysis and more Film | 2 or 3 Things I Know About Film >> Film Film reviews, essays, analysis and more
New York Film Festival, Day 1: Faces, Places (2017)

Places, Faces is such a rewarding experience that it feels counter-productive to put into words. The documentary is a collaboration between legendary director Agnes Varda and visual artist JR, focusing on what the title states: faces and places throughout France.

After an animated opening sequence, the two meet in a brief comedic sketch discussing the nature of their collaboration. It’s quite simple: JR, a 34-year-old self-described “photograffeur,” -- a portmanteau of photography and graffiti -- will post large black-and-white murals on buildings alongside Agnes’s filmmaking and instruction. It’s a masterclass of sorts for JR, working with an artist that he states has “seen 88 springs.”

The age difference between the two is key, and it plays a pivotal role as to why their collaboration works so well. Varda has portrayed the lower class since her first feature, 1955’s La Pointe Courte, which depicts a family in a fishing village, their problems with the health board, and the death of their son. One of the last living members of the French New-Wave, she brings to life people and situations -- be it in narrative or documentary -- that aren’t often represented on screen.

Faces is a continuation of that vein, but beyond its subject matter, it’s ultimately a film about perspective. As Varda notes, she has an eye disease that has caused her vision to deteriorate over time. She notes that while most things look bright to her, some things look dark to the sunglasses-donning JR, who makes the murals in black and white. And, because of her age, she sees things from a more patient perspective; she wants to create images that people passing by can stop and admire, with qualities that linger in the mind and put it at ease. 

What’s important to note about Faces is that it’s not just their film: it’s also ours. As Varda told Variety back in May: “We try to connect with the audience. We don’t want to seduce them. We want them to come with us, and meet people. The film is ours, but now it is yours too.” The film has beautiful shots of France, in its towns and countrysides, and the film is a tribute to the country and--more imperative--the people who help keep it afloat. We meet various members of the working class: mailmen and construction workers -- and their wives -- among them, whose efforts often go unrecognized in both cinema and in daily life.

There’s a certain novelty in Faces, in that a sizable portion of recent documentaries are politically charged--something that’s likely to increase in Trump’s America. Documentary can be a medium for filmmakers to editorialize current states of affairs, or broaden their audiences to new perspectives. Varda unconventionally does both: she affirms that we’re all people who have efforts that should be celebrated, and that the most beautiful images aren’t on screen, but around us in ways we hadn’t considered--a sentiment she’s adhered to throughout her career. Varda acknowledges that she’s nearing the end of her life and career, and, should this be her swan song -- let’s hope not --, she couldn’t have picked a more powerful message to leave her audience with.

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