Ninety-year-old filmmaker Agnes Varda’s latest film Faces Places (Visages Villages, 2017), made in collaboration with the street artist JR, feels both like the summation of a lifetime’s thinking about cinema, work, and everyday life, and a tentative suggestion of what might happen next. Varda’s work, while undeniably avant-garde, French, and therefore naturally ‘difficult’ and ‘pretentious’, has always struck a balance between accessibility, intellectual rigour, and experiment. Faces Places stands as an object lesson in the richness and complexity that almost sixty years of film-making can produce.
The film follows Varda and JR on a tour around France in the latter’s enormous van-cum-photobooth, photographing and immortalising members of different communities by reproducing their images at huge scale in public places. In this set-up and the interaction between JR, Varda, and their varied subjects allows for a kind of valedictory reprise of Varda’s storied career. The film blends documentary and artifice, focusing on the lives of working people, and insists both that ‘culture is ordinary’ and that ordinary lives can be the stuff of radical new forms of high art. Through JR’s big photographs, pasted onto buildings, Varda memorialises her own past, those she loved, worked with, and has outlived, and pays homage to the lives and struggles of workers, insisting on their dignity, centrality, and importance.