“Chance has always been my best assistant,” says the elfin giant of the cinema, Agnes Varda, in the enormously pleasurable documentary “Faces Places.” Not everything (or even most things) that happen in Varda’s rolling, roving collaboration with the photographer and muralist known as JR occur by happenstance. But filmmaker Varda, now 89, has been catching lightning in a bottle for decades, first as part of the Nouvelle Vague, then as a post-New Wave artist. This movie, a diary of a freewheeling, far-flung installation art project, combines chance and intuition and a humane eye.
In JR’s boxy van, on which is painted a huge image of a camera, JR and Varda embark on various excursions around the French countryside and in French villages. They meet dockworkers in Le Havre and factory workers near Chateau Arnoux. They, and we, come to know barkeeps, mail carriers, the daughter of a miner, now of advancing years, and the last resident of an old row of miners’ houses.
JR photographs these subjects and blows up the resulting images to enormous scale, affixing the photos to the sides of buildings, barns and rail cars. (At one point, a photo of Varda’s bare feet is seen covering an entire tanker car.) When Jeanine, the miner’s daughter, first sees the photograph of herself writ large and covering the exterior of her own house, her response is one of astonishment and tears and gratitude and, yes, a little embarrassment.
It’s possible to view these pop-up art exhibits of, by and for the people as mere stunts. Varda and JR see them differently, of course. The road trips, in Varda’s words, are a way of “expressing our imaginations on their turf.” The genuine affection and respect between these two shines in each new encounter. In JR, who rarely removes his sunglasses, Varda notes a resemblance to her longtime friend and occasional artistic colleague Jean-Luc Godard. The elusiveness of Godard today (he lives, and occasionally still works, in Switzerland) provides “Faces Places” with its yearning through-line. Varda and JR eventually leave France, taking a train over the border, in search of Godard. What they find there, and the bittersweet feelings the search brings out in Varda, take this extended, 89-minute poetic gesture to a more personal place.
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Like everything else in “Faces Places,” it works. You’re happy to follow these two wherever their curiosity takes them.
Rated: PG for brief nude images, thematic elements. Directors: Agnes Varda, JR. Running time: 90 minutes. Theater: Flicks.