The original French title of “Faces Places,” the new film made jointly by Agnès Varda (born in 1928) and the photographer and muralist JR (born in 1983), is “Visages Villages,” meaning “Faces Villages,” which more precisely reflects the film’s substance and the directorial duo’s intentions. They travel in JR’s van (equipped with a photo booth and a large-format printer) to small towns in France, which are as infused with nostalgia as are American small towns, and which are similarly threatened by the economic and social forces of modern life.
In the movie’s first set of extended encounters, in a former coal-mining town, the filmmakers speak with a woman named Jeanine who’s the lone holdout in a row of miners’ homes that’s soon to be demolished, and then with neighbors from the town who lovingly describe the ways of life that have vanished from the town along with the mining industry. What Varda and JR do with their filmed knowledge is what distinguishes it from the familiar round of investigative documentaries: a headshot of Jeanine, taken in the van, is blown up dozens of feet high and pasted by JR and his crew to the wall of her house, magnifying and honoring her on a scale usually reserved for public and historic figures.
More than a cinematographer or a photographer, more than a documentarist or a narrative artist, Varda is an iconographer, whose stories and explorations, recollections and encounters, are magnified into images that are, in effect, devotional. Whether festive or mournful, tragic or comedic, they embrace the fullness of experience and emotion with a fervent grandeur, which is why, in “Faces Places,” her work with JR becomes, in its own way, iconic of itself—his murals are transformed, here, into symbols of her own artistic passion.