Tropic Sprockets / Faces Places

By Ian Brockway

The artist JR and French filmmaker Agnes Varda have co-directed a story of their friendship entitled “Faces Places.”  It is a documentary and as sweet as it is compelling.

Varda is a contemporary of Jean-Luc Godard and a member of the French New Wave cinema. Opinionated yet endearing, she wears a two tone bowl haircut and marches where she pleases.

The artist JR is tall and lanky and walks with a loping easy gait. He never takes off his hat and dark sunglasses, even presumedly at night. Despite steady fame, JR is unassuming and even tempered. He seems to gallop, moving in and out of tight spaces.

At first, the film seems a cute version of “Amelie.”. “No we did not meet at a bakery, a bus stop…we did not meet at a disco…” The film shows JR trying to by a chocolate eclair, only to have them swept up by Varda. JR goes to a bus stop unseen by Varda, then they are both at a dance club and completely miss each other.

JR confesses that they met for coffee before meeting at the artist’s studio. It was there that they decided to collaborate. They would travel around French villages and take lifesize Polaroid photos of people that they happen to meet seemingly by chance.

And perhaps make a film.

The pair travel in a truck made to look like a camera on wheels.

The people that they meet: cargo shippers, farmers, miners, a homeless man, and isolated townspeople from an abandoned town, are within the range of normalcy, yet they remain quirky around the edges. Every one of them like Agnes and JR. They invariably give consent to a picture.

JR puts the photo through an onboard machine and the image is blown up poster size. JR then pastes the poster on the subject’s home or building. The sitters are often moved to the point of tears.

Varda and the photographer take their leave humbly with smiles.

What emerges is a character study of friendship. Varda is feisty. JR is easy-going. JR likes working with people, Varda does not. Varda marches, JR. sways.

The filmmaker is bothered and offended by one  thing: her friend never takes off his sunglasses. This criticism makes JR flash to anger.

But the two are soon on the road again to meet others.

“Faces Places” is a sweet, lively and unusual film about the power of friendships, creative or otherwise. Both Agnes and JR slowly come to life as two distinct personalities and by the time the film is over, one no doubt feels a kind of mystery that comes from watching this pair.

Pay attention to hidden messages: there is one event at the end that gives more questions than answers and it hits with a bang.

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