I’m a relatively cynical guy, but even I couldn’t avoid cracking a smile — often— while watching Agnes Varda’s latest film, Faces Places. Sixty years into an illustrious career, the French New Wave icon shows no signs of slowing down, and even in her late 80s, Varda’s capacity for inventiveness and creativity remains undiminished.
Faces Places takes a deceptively simple art project and spins it into a sort of post-Nouvelle Vague documentary, something that defies genre classification by virtue of its capacity to encompass a multitude of formal conventions while becoming an utterly unique artifact in and of itself.
If the setup is somewhat straightforward, the execution is anything but. Varda teams up with co-director JR, a young French photographer and street artist known for his building-spanning paste-ups, and the duo traverse the French countryside documenting the stories and faces of interesting people they meet along the way. In the hands of a master like Varda, what could have been a cloyingly sentimental prospect becomes a profound meditation on mortality, the transience of life and the purpose of art. And because it’s Varda, none of it comes across as being nearly as serious or self-important as that description could imply.
Traveling in a van painted to look like a camera that hides a photo booth and a giant printer, Varda and JR capture candid portraiture of the rural masses — along with their histories and, more importantly, their emotional context. And this is where Faces becomes more than the sum of its parts because it takes that content and weaves it into a complex narrative with the directors themselves at its core. Yes, the film is about the coal miners and waitresses and dock workers, about their reactions to having their likenesses emblazoned on buildings 50 feet high — but it’s also about the way Varda and JR relate to each other and to their subjects. It plays a bit like the cinema verite of Orson Welles’ F for Fake colliding with the anarchic deconstructionism of the New Wave applied to a road trip with a favorite grandparent. That’s my long-winded way of saying it’s great.
In some senses, Varda has always been better suited to documentary work than any of her New Wave contemporaries ever could have been. The level of emotional awareness she brings to her docs rivals that found in her own narrative character studies like Cleo from 5 to 7, and she lacks the cynicism toward all things noncinematic that characterized the later works of former collaborator Jean-Luc Godard, whose impact on Faces is overt. But this film is more than simply a collection of charming anecdotes and stylistic shoutouts — it’s a very personal film that reveals a great deal about its author from between the lines. Faces is a definite must-see for anyone who appreciates the New Wave, but its value goes much deeper than that. Call it a documentary with a narrative, or a fictive feature based in reality, but however you define it, Faces Places is humanist art at its most emotionally poignant. Rated PG for brief nude images and thematic elements. Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.