Art as an act of remembering. Art as an act of empathy. Faces Places — with Villages Visages as its original French title — is a gift of kindness.
It’s a documentary about director Agnès Varda and photographer J.R. traveling the French countryside in a van outfitted with a giant industrial printer. Townsfolk line up to have their photos taken, printed and plastered on various structures around town. The documentary is part ethnography, part performance art. Of course, performance art is in itself a cultural artifact that speaks to the persuasions and practices of its creators at a given time. As best as I can describe it, Faces Places is an ouroboros loop of ethnographic expression.
The faces printed by Varda and J.R. are a way of marking the people who inhabit their places at any given time and place. The bulk of Faces Places is fairly akin to Humans of New York (a photo-blog project consisting of images and interviews captured on the streets of New York), or StoryCorps (oral history interviews modeled after the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s) and a wide assortment of podcasts (like WTF or Radiolab) that endeavor to capture the stories of “ordinary” people as they live their lives.
I tend to find it endlessly fascinating to listen to the experiences of local people and how the world has changed around them. Farmers, old miners, factory workers. Towns that have moved on and the people who have had to move on along with them. Faces Places isn’t steeped in nostalgia or cynicism but rather empathy and understanding — listening as an act of empathy without an agenda.
The autobiographical elements of Faces Places are the film’s weakest portion. Varda and J.R. are both fascinating characters in their own right, particularly Varda, but the way they’re inserted into the narrative flow of the movie makes those bits feel like stopgaps rather than parts of the movie’s momentum. Their subjects’ intimate portraits contextualize the larger cultural changes in France, and when we look back at our hosts, the story sort of contracts. As I write this, I realize it’s a little unfair; I feel like I’m not being empathetic to them. This is the kind of mood in which Faces Places put me.
As with the biographical sketches, watching as Varda and J.R.’s art project unfolds is a real joy. Faces Places allows for Varda, now an experienced and aged artist, to reflect on what being a director has meant to her over her lifetime and what committing to such a project as seen in this movie means to her. My favorite moment of the movie comes relatively early on, when Varda and J.R. visit an old mining town and meet a woman who is the last on her block in a row of old miners’ homes. The town is drying up, but she recounts the experiences of her father. It’s not a story dissimilar from a worker in any other industrial job in a first-world country and it is beautifully told. Varda and J.R. then cover the row of houses with the faces of townsfolk, with their subject’s face on her own home. The project is relatively simple, but nonetheless beautiful; a clear statement that kind of leaves you staggered. What do we see in a person’s face, even if they’re a stranger?
There are, of course, detours from the interviews. One with a goat is particularly fun.
I was taken aback at the kindness at the core of Faces Places. There’s a purity to the empathy at play here. Many documentaries focus on a singular subject or issue; in the development of their art project, Varda and J.R. found the perfect way to meet and celebrate the individual lives and experiences of an entire country. It’s a movie about art, a movie about people, a movie about empathy and listening and kindness. It’s one of this year’s best documentaries.