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Movie review: Charming documentary 'Faces Places' follows 88-year-old photographer across France

POSTED November 11, 2017 3:21 a.m.
Josh Terry/

Agnès Varda, left, and JR in “Faces Places.”

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"FACES PLACES" — 3 stars — Agnes Varda, JR, Jeannine Carpentier, Jean Luc-Godard; PG (brief nudity and thematic elements); Broadway

“Faces Places” showcases a unique artistic friendship, following two photographers as they set out to discover and celebrate the residents of villages throughout their native France.

In most cases, the celebration comes in the form of massive black and white murals, created from portraits of local citizens and plastered on the faces of various structures. The project and accompanying film are the brainchild of Agnès Varda and her friend JR, a pair of professional photographers whose mutual admiration and budding friendship steer them all over France as they seek out new and unsuspecting subjects.

JR is tall and gangly, 33 years old and permanently parked behind a pair of dark sunglasses. He’d long been an admirer of Varda, who was 88 by the time the pair teamed up for the film project. Varda is a lovable old woman with a big smile and a storied past — she’s a longtime collaborator with French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard — and her curious two-tone hairdo betrays her mischievous personality.

Over the course of 89 minutes, JR and Varda visit a dozen locations in a large transit van that has been modified to look like a giant camera. When people step into the back of the van, they find themselves in a portable photo booth, which prints out large format prints from a slit on the side of the vehicle. JR and Varda then use these prints to manufacture the murals.

Early on, JR and Varda meet Jeannine Carpentier, who is the last remaining resident in a row of old miner homes scheduled for demolition. In tribute to her, JR and Varda create murals out of photographs of the miners who used to work the area, plastering them on the surrounding brick homes and putting together a special larger-than-life portrait of Carpentier to cover her own home.

Later, JR and Varda offer similar treatment to a rural farmer who, thanks to modern technology, handles 2,000 acres on his own, and then they put together another tribute for a team of factory workers whose opposing shifts keep them from regular interaction. We visit the Pirou-Plage ghost town, where a half-finished tract of housing has deteriorated into a graveyard of graffiti-covered shells, and a dock where JR and Varda plaster portraits of the union members’ wives on the sides of shipping crates.

Along the way, a subtle plot emerges, as Varda tries to persuade JR to finally remove his sunglasses and open himself up to a deeper level of friendship. It’s also a gesture that connects Varda to her past and her friendship with Godard, who also used to hide behind sunglasses.

At 88, Varda is afraid she won’t live to see the end of the project, and that tension gradually elevates the meaning of the film, especially once the pair takes on an old German bunker at Normandy that has been tipped off a cliff and come to rest on the beach, creating a perfect canvas.

“Faces Places” doesn’t go out of its way to be too fancy, offering a clever or charming turn here or there but mostly following the photographers and putting the focus on their work. There are no cutaway interviews, though in some cases, “Faces Places” revisits old locations to discover what has happened since the murals were posted. The film will be best appreciated by other photographers, but its theme of friendship and its spirit of seeking out the hidden value of the humanity around us make JR and Varda’s film a worthwhile and relatable investment for most anyone.

"Faces Places" is rated PG for brief nudity and thematic elements; running time: 89 minutes.

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