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Here is a cure for the weak and weary, for those stumbling through this rotten year that seems to hide a new trauma around every corner. Her name is Agnès Varda, and she is here to help. Varda is an 89-year-old filmmaker, a veteran of the French New Wave. She has a new film called Faces Places. It is an improvisational and experimental documentary, a mere seed of an idea that blossoms into the one of the most affecting films of the year.
Faces Places begins when Agnes befriends JR, a hip, young photographer that reminds her of an old friend, director Jean-Luc Godard. Like Godard, JR has a keen artistic eye that he perpetually hides behind sunglasses. This obfuscation annoys Varda, and the two bicker as if they have known each other for decades. Together, they hatch a plan: to travel the countryside, make art together inspired by the people they meet, and film the whole journey. It’s a road trip through both France and the hidden valleys of Varda’s well-worn heart.
Not that they have much of a plan. “Chance has always been my best assistance,” she says. Preferring playful spontaneity to careful calculation, Varda and JR set off from Paris with his portable photo booth in tow and stop when they find a face that strikes their fancy. After a quick conversation, they take their photo, blow it up, and paste it on the side of a local building. Some find the experience of being pasted on a public wall delightful, while others find it unnerving. Varda, guided by an open heart, gives equal weight to both.
Like all road trip, their journeyunfolds episodically, with each chapter an opportunity to explore a small corner of the world. One of the first stops is a washed-up mining town, where the filmmakers interview unemployed workers about how the town has suffered. The photos of the miners are blown up on row houses as a tribute to their legacy. There are scenes of inimitable beauty, like a worker in a belltower dancing violently with the ropes, making three bells rings at once.
Yet as these curiosities come and go, a more personal thread emerges. Certain stops on their journey rekindle old memories and make Varda become philosophical about her life’s journey. Although spry for 89, Varda is aware of her increasing nearness to death, a fact that she and JR approach like old friends who have lived a lifetime together. “Each face I see may be my last,” she says. “Yes, but we bounce back like cats,” he says, in a language we sense only they understand.
There and elsewhere, Varda and her companion seem to bring out the best in everyone. Their plan, based entirely on fate, is sprung from an innate faith in humanity, and the people they meet, whose faces seem plastered with smiles, reflect that goodness. It all seems so idyllic that you might wonder if it is secretly scripted, or if Varda just edited out all the conflict. The world just can’t be this lovely. Can it?
Faces Places opens Friday at Bethesda Row.