Varda seemed especially happy to serve as both filmmaker and subject in these later years, and perhaps never more so than in Faces Places.
At one point in 2017’s Faces Places, Agnés Varda says to her collaborator, the visual artist JR, “Let’s get as many images as we can before it’s too late.” It’s hard not to think of this how Varda approached her final years. While she was fairly prolific, her final years were filled with some of her most heartfelt, autobiographical work. Though she was never shy about documenting herself or parts of her own life, Varda seemed especially happy to serve as both filmmaker and subject in these later years, and perhaps never more so than in Faces Places.
In less assured hands, the set up for Faces Places could have seemed a bit gimmicky. The film follows the 89-year-old Varda and the 34-year-old JR as they travel France in his customized van, which doubles as a photobooth and printer. This allows them to take and print massive photos of everyday people and Banksy them about in weird and wonderful ways. Yet, because of the two artists’ fascinating conversations and the joy they take from their adventure, Faces Places is never anything less than captivating. There is a melancholy tinge to much of it, as Varda, though youthful in outlook and in health, is obviously near the end of her life, and because some of the hard lives of some of the faces and places they meet on their journey.
Though you can sense JR’s respect for Varda throughout, one of the more surprising elements is Varda’s admiration for the work of her young partner in crime. Varda has, over the years, rubbed shoulders with some of the finest filmmakers in history, yet her knowledge of JR’s work and her regard for his art sometimes makes it seem as if he is the legend and she the neophyte. Their demeanor suggests this as well; Varda is as open and sprightly as ever, while JR is more rigid. Though she has the more illustrious résumé, she seems more willing to experiment, while JR’s whole process – from his outfit to his customized vehicle to the aesthetic of his imagery – is far less flexible.
The pairing is one of obvious kindred spirits. Even the ways in which they disagree give the impression of long-term friends rather than new acquaintances. Faces Places is immensely satisfying because of the ease of their partnership and the ways it inspires each of them artistically. The film itself is the firmest example of their collaboration, and its consistent delights are a testament to how much the two artists inspire one another.
Though it seems superficial to mention because of how philosophical most of Faces Places’ charms are, it has to be noted that the cinematographic quality of the filmmaking here is also extraordinary. This is particularly notable because of the long span of Varda’s career, and it is fascinating to see her use some of the same techniques she used in micro-budgeted films in the ’50s and ’60s with the aid of more funding and high definition. It serves to show how timeless Varda’s talent is, yet also how she consistently embraces the new, different and experimental in her work.
Faces Places won Varda the L’Œil d’or award at the Cannes Film Festival and gave the filmmaker her first Academy Award nomination. Her legend was already cemented, of course, and she was not a person who chased financial or critical acclaim, but there is something beautiful about Agnés Varda being the oldest Academy Award nominee in history. Because she wasn’t a late bloomer; she was there along.