NZIFF ’17/01: FACES PLACES

2017; directed by JR and Agnès Varda; 89 mins

Back again! Let’s start the fest with a documentary and one by a woman who is amongst the most important figures in film history! French Cinema’s pint-sized titan, Agnès Varda, teams with photographer and mural artist, JR,to create one of the most gently, endearingly oddball road movies I’ve ever seen. Teaming up through a mutual admiration of each others’ work, they tour the villages of France to photograph and celebrate the people they meet by pasting huge photo murals in the heart of their respective environments.

When I say they have a mutual admiration of each other, don’t worry. This is no luvvie-fest! Varda is far too unafraid of voicing her objections when she tires of JR’s clowning around (his hipster traits are slightly grating sometimes). In fact, it’s her vitality that really makes this a winning film. This doesn’t feel like the work of an older statesperson, basking in the comfortable reflection of former glories (and she could legitimately do so). She’s travelling in a black van with a photo booth in the back, meeting farmers, dockers, factory workers, miners’ wives and barmaids to celebrate them in the closest way that the 21st century has to grass roots.

Varda has been around for so long, though, that all the films I thought of whilst watching it are probably influenced by her anyway. In it’s handheld, digital vibrancy and makeshift aesthetics you can see the works of British filmmakers, Julien Temple and Andrew Kötting. Two other things that popped into my head were an article from The Idler magazine on ‘Folk Art’ (art either constructed or found made by ordinary people for no commercial gain) and Simon Munnery‘s surreal sketch show Attention Scum. I mean, I’m sure those references aren’t in there at all but it did make me think of them (in a good way).

I suppose that’s a roundabout way of saying how much I loved it’s seemingly ramshackle approach to it’s central adventure. The reasons behind going to any one particular town range from the personal (Varda’s previous haunts), the political (French miners’ houses up for demolition) to the frivolous (Well, this looks nice)!

As they point out in the film, it is a strange thing to be guided through this journey all about image by a 33 year-old man who never takes his sunglasses off and an 89 year-old woman who’s eyesight is failing. Their visions are clear, however and this Nouvelle Vague answer to Little and Large are inspiring in their passion to document, present and in certain ways clarify the beauty of the everyday. It’s about memory in that way, Varda wants to record all this beauty before her sight completely fails her and it’s that conversational undercurrent which gives the documentary a real gut feeling of melancholy, through to it’s bittersweet ending.

If this is to be Varda’s swansong then what a wonderful, joyous, moving way to bow out: with an alternative road movie whose heart is wedged firmly in the right place.

FACES PLACES is showing at The Regent Theatre on 17th August at 6.15p.m. and 23rd August at 11a.m.

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