Oscar Night being almost upon us, it’s high time to pay some attention to one of its most underappreciated awards: Documentary Feature. Even for those of us who relish getting our teeth into a meaty doc, it’s a rare year when we are afforded opportunities to see more than one of the nominees before the little golden dude is handed out. Few cinemas give them any screentime. And, because the info-heavy visual nature of documentaries tends to handle the transition to smaller screens better than epic CGI-fests, many fans are content to catch up with notable titles later on, when they appear on PBS and Netflix and the various “highbrow” cable channels.
Still, it’s nice to have a favorite horse in each race on that Sunday evening of glitz and glamour, even if it’s the only contender that you actually saw. Happily, this past week Upstate Films was kind enough to provide a second chance to catch one of 2017’s front-runners for Best Documentary Feature.
There was a time, during the heyday of the Nouvelle Vague and for a decade or two afterward, when going to see a French movie was practically a guarantee of joy. The story might be grappling with tough topics like death and guilt, ennui and betrayal, absurdity and futility; but there would always be an underlayer of delight in the moment, in fleeting glimpses of beauty and meaning. One could not walk out of a Truffaut film without feeling uplifted. Maybe I’m not going to the right French movies anymore, but I haven’t been seeing many examples of this deep vein of delight coming from that part of the world cultural map in recent years.
I guess that’s part of the reason why 89-year-old Left Bank icon Agnès Varda’s latest (and perhaps last, to hear her tell it) feature film, Faces Places (Visages Villages), swept me up like a whirlwind of flower petals. It delivers precisely what one wants from a “French movie,” even if it is a doc. It’s a picaresque (not to mention picturesque) road trip through the winding back roads of France, starring two magnetic individuals who bicker and spark one another endlessly, each learning to see as the other sees.
Though Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) is the work by which Varda is probably mostly widely known, my own introduction to her oeuvre was One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977). While the plot involves suicide, abortion, the stirrings of Shiite revolution in Iran and the women’s movement in France, it’s fundamentally an ode to the enduring spirit of female friendship, and a cinematic experience with charm to spare. The director’s genius lies in channeling a humanistic worldview through a distinctly female eye.
Faces Places keeps Varda’s wellspring of inspiration flowing by pairing the veteran observer with one of the young renegades of France’s current cultural scene: the artist who goes only by the handle JR because he has been jailed on vandalism charges in so many countries for his work, the nature of which gives new meaning to the term “photobombing.” JR, now 35, who shares the directorial credit for Faces Places, met Varda in 2015 and recruited her to come along on some of his missions to photograph ordinary people and plaster their gigantic blown-up images onto the sides of buildings, barns, water towers and other structures. Under the aegis of the Inside Out project, his Photobooth truck – painted to look like a camera-on-wheels – has traveled all over the world to insist in very large terms that the lives of non-celebrities matter. In Tecate, for example, a 70-foot-tall photographic image of an adorable Mexican toddler peers over the border wall into San Diego County, and there isn’t a damn thing that the Wall-Builder-in-Chief can do about it.
The real stars of Faces Places are working-class French people living in small towns and rural areas that are visibly in transition, their native beauty sitting uncomfortably alongside such signs of modern technology as big-rig farm machinery. We meet retired miners, goatherders, chemical plant employees, waitresses, dockworkers. Varda and JR ask them about their lives, capture their gorgeous, weathered, complicated faces on film, affix them to walls and record them taking selfies with their larger selves.
In between stops, the two filmmakers philosophize about art and mortality and the passage of time. Varda constantly nags JR to take off his ever-present dark glasses while she struggles with the deterioration of her own eyesight. They make pilgrimages to the grave of photography giant Henri Cartier-Bresson (to whose work JR’s has sometimes been compared) and the Swiss hermitage of Varda’s old New Wave crony, Jean-Luc Godard. But it all keeps coming back to the common people: making them visible, to themselves and to others.
It goes without saying that the cinematography of Faces Places, while not flashy, is superb, taking full advantage of the playful camera angles afforded by a spiral staircase or a waterside park bench. This is a movie packed with delights from start to finish. And yes, it’s utterly French, in a good old way. I hope it wins on Sunday night; then, more of you may get to see it when it takes its theatrical victory lap.