Agnès Varda is here to make friends. She’s pretty good at it, too. At 89, the legendary director, a major figure of France’s nouvelle vague of the 1960s, has had a lifetime of practice: she enticed audiences with classics like “Cleo from 5 to 7” and “Vagabond,” and, for the past two decades charmed a new generation with her intimate, first-person documentaries “The Gleaners and I” and “The Beaches of Agnes.” (She’s receiving a Governor’s Award from the Oscars this year for her lifetime of filmmaking achievement.) And through it all, she’s maintained relationships even with notoriously difficult people like Jean-Luc Godard (more on that later).
With “Faces Places,” a wonderfully humane, funny, and moving chapter in Varda’s documentary phase, it was time to collaborate with popular young French artist JR, a man who specializes in photographs turned into enormous images on the sides of buildings, and she happily embarks on a cross-country jaunt in his truck.
Appropriately enough for this goodwill tour, named “Inside Out” by JR, the vehicle is designed to look like a camera and is, in effect, a rolling photo booth. Varda and JR scout a rural location, introduce themselves to people, wrangle props like baguettes or parasols on the fly (there seems to be not much more planning than telling a stranger, “Please find me a parasol”) and shoot their subjects. In the process, conversations develop and relationships break ground.
At this point JR takes over, blows up the photos — they roll out of a slot in the side of the truck like gigantic vintage Polaroids — and scaffolding commences. Varda wanders about talking to, and posing for cell phone photos with, the village’s curious onlookers. Finally the billboard-sized portrait is affixed to a factory, an abandoned house, an apartment building, a stone wall, or a collection of shipping containers, the subject enjoying an odd sort of local fame.
Throughout the process, Varda asks questions and listens to stories. Her film career has been a study in centering the stories of ordinary people and those who find themselves on the margins, her natural empathy for all sorts of lived experience her secret weapon. (Her adorably tiny stature, gentle manner, and two-toned art hair probably help smooth the way, too.)
She isn’t a journalistic interrogator, steering her prey or demanding answers; she’s the curious onlooker who wants to know what life circumstances were involved in your decision to stay solidly put in a row of otherwise abandoned miner’s houses, to marry that dockworker, or to become the village church bell ringer.
The intergenerational friends photograph an eccentric man whose home is built out of discarded materials; they dance to “Ring My Bell;” they meet goat farmers who’ve rejected technological advances in milking, immortalizing one of the horned cheese producers on the side of a barn; they visit the secluded grave of Henri Cartier-Bresson; they shoot a shy waitress who ultimately regrets being made photographically enormous because, well, it turns out she isn’t comfortable with being known (even if her kids love it and play at tickling her now bicycle-sized feet).
Varda consents to having her own child-sized feet shot and displayed on a train car, in spite of her own discomfort with how they look, and only as the first dare taken in her attempt to get JR to remove his signature dark sunglasses.
Her young collaborator is amiable yet mysterious, a necessity based on his background as a street artist, and his refusal to remove the face-obscuring glasses evokes Varda’s memories of her friendship with Godard. Explaining to JR that she once got the recalcitrant filmmaker to remove them, briefly, for a short film, she presses him to give in and do the same. He resists, even after the experience of running through the Louvre, pushing the friend he refers to as a “wise grandma” in a wheelchair, recreating a scene from Godard’s “Band of Outsiders.”
They talk about death and Varda’s increasingly blurry eyesight. And though her stated point is “to bring ideas to new people and exchange them,” as “Faces Places” floats toward its soft landing, it becomes more clear that it’s equally important for the filmmaker simply to see as much as she can, as many people as she can, before she’s unable. Taking photos right now, making films right now, meeting people right now, they’re all important while there’s still time. “We’ll vanish,” she says.
It’s why a planned visit with Godard, who’s a no-show, takes on a heartbreaking quality. Leaving a cryptic, coded message written on a window for his long-time filmmaker friend prompts tears. She’s not in the mood for the prank. But true to form, she’s quick to absolve, sort of: “He’s my friend. I like him. He’s a dirty rat.” Forgiven for now, if he’s lucky enough to get another moment in her company, he’d better take it.