2017 Milwaukee Film Festival – Day Fourteen – FACES PLACES
Day fourteen of the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival brought the much anticipated secret members film screening. There had been much speculation over what would be chosen and they made a choice that was off my radar with Agnès Varda and JR’s FACES PLACES. FACES PLACES went on to prove that sometimes surprises work better than all the planning in the world.
The setup of FACES PLACES is simple enough. JR, a famous photographer who pastes larger than life portraits in public spaces, and Varda, who started her career as a photographer, take a road trip in a van to small villages in France. Along the way, they take photographs of working class people and paste larger than life images in the places those people work. It’s a way to see and meet people that are not the usual subjects of cinema. The nearly 90 year old Varda and 30 something JR are a real odd couple and create some comedic sparks along with some striking visual compositions. FACES PLACES starts as a road movie / travelogue and has a lot of fun with it. There are some political meanings in what they choose to photograph, but they’re more of a Rorschach test than a manifesto.
What’s remarkable about FACES PLACES is how that setup morphs into something deeper and more interesting. JR who constantly wears a hat and conceals his eyes behind sunglasses, not unlike Varda’s old friend Jean Luc Godard, never really lets the audience in on his past and inner thoughts. Varda is anything but guarded. Varda starts reminiscing early about places she’s visited in the past, but midway through the film it really comes alive as a film, first through a flashback to where Varda and JR first took a series of photographs of fish, then through a transition from a shot focusing on a fish eye to Varda’s own eye undergoing treatment, including an injection. Varda jokes that it’s nothing compared to UN CHIEN ANDALOU and playfully cuts to the most famous moment of that film. But, behind the joking, we slowly get to focus on Varda’s own mortality and memories. Old photographs and memories brought to larger than life moments are also framed against Varda’s own photographs, memories, and pending mortality on a bigger than life screen. JR with his rule breaking swagger crafts some memorable images and certainly expands what you can do, but Varda can take that rulebreaking and craft something personal and revealing.
In many ways, FACES PLACES seems like a kind of collaboration between Varda and Godard. There’s a scene where Varda and JR visit the Louvre where they can’t help but do their own variation on the race through the museum from BANDE A PART. And the film comes complete with a visit to Godard that doesn’t go exactly as planned. FACES PLACES has a view of the past through cinema that’s completely out of the French New Wave, but also does it as a summing up. Godard and Varda were friends, but you also sense that there was competition between the two. FACES PLACES makes a strong case for Varda’s cinema in that contest.
I don’t know how much of the film between the photographic visits is actually documentary, the Godard visit material could be a complete put on, but it doesn’t matter. The whole film reveals a truth about an old woman, her memories, and her art. An art that proves to still be especially vibrant, human, and fun. If FACES PLACES turns out to be Varda’s last film, it’s a wonderful testament to go out on.
Today, October 12th, is the final day of the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased online at the Milwaukee Film Festival website or at box office locations at various venues.