Visages, villages (Faces Places)

Check it out, I’m the talk of the town

A nd now for some vapid amiable fluff. The rationale was senseless and the film had little to say, but if you’re old enough to enjoy things that aren’t cartoons, today’s movie will probably put a smile on your face. Searching for movie ideas, French not-nearly-as-mysterious-as-he-imagines photographer JR and bizarre Oompa Loompa impersonator Agnès Varda decided on a documentary where the two would scour France for empty billboard sites and adorn them the faces of everyday people.

First, the appearances: JR is a reedy 33-year-old who cannot be seen without sunglasses. The fact that he’s a photographer -and still never removes his sunglasses while engaging in his profession- could mean he has the greatest eyesight ever known to man or, perhaps, that he’s a pretentious pile of merde. He comes off very gentlemanly on film and has an obvious affinity for old people, so we give him the benefit of the doubt. Agnès is an 87-year-old veteran of many a film campaign. She’s roughly a meter shorter than JR and balks at his glasses. They remind her, constantly, of how Jean-Luc Godard never took off his own sunglasses, something we only hear about 17 times in the film. She has a bowl cut with two-tone white & orange hair in concentric circles. The white on the interior branches about three inches from the root and then orange for the extensions. From a bird’s eye point-of-view, she literally looks like a target. For more than half the film, I thought her Friar Tuck look was the result of letting an old dye job run its course only to realize this absurd fashion statement was intentional. Psst, don’t say anything.

JR owns a traveling photo lab/RV capable of detailed poster-size enlargements, so the two road-trip in their mystery machine finding surfaces to plaster and then deciding what to plaster them with. Opposite a mill, they plaster two-story residential façades with pictures of mill workers. On a barn, they capture the entirety of a farmer who works hundreds of acres by his lonesome. In the town square, they capture a local waitress. Shame they didn’t find a brothel; do you think the French would have had a problem with that?

The obvious question arises: would you be flattered or creeped out by a gargantuan billboard of yourself just sitting out in public? I know my answer: my college roommate was a photographer and I’d get a touch uneasy seeing all the pictures of me around our dorm room. And that wasn’t even public. I’m happy to say most don’t have the same reaction as I would. The workers of a salt mill truly enjoyed strolling by themselves on their way to work. Does it get awkward when people get laid-off or fired? “Hey, that’s me waving my career here goodbye …” Luckily, none of that happens in the film; Faces Places has a consistently upbeat tone as if to say, “We’re doing something kinda cool and the people love it.”  Yay.  Most audiences will respond accordingly.

There are indeed a fair amount of smiles in this film, if lacking for something stronger. I’d laughed at one moment where the town cop pointed out that the forty-foot image on the side of a public building was fine; the problem was JR didn’t have a permit for the scaffolding and would probably be fined. That still doesn’t answer, “Why?” Why do this? Honestly, I’m not even sure JR or Agnès know the reasons for their Banksy-like behavior. Midway through, they visit a tiny cemetery (fortunately, both had the good taste not to plaster any headstones during the visit). Asked whether she feared death, octogenarian Agnès says, “no … because that will be that.” Now maybe something got lost in translation, and -believe me- I’m overjoyed an 87-year-old doesn’t fear death, but this answer is among the least satisfying I have ever heard, and I think is intended to apply to the film as well. Why did we do this? Because that will be that.

♪We don’t need no negative space
We don’t need no “post no bills”
No chipping paint upon a silo
Plaster is a job I’ll own
Hey! Plaster! That’s a job I’ll own
All I want is just another face on a wall♫

Rated PG, 89 Minutes
Director: JR, Agnès Varda
Writer: JR, Agnès Varda
Genre: Odd things people do
Type of being most likely to enjoy this film: Seniors
Type of being least likely to enjoy this film: People who need reasons

♪ Parody Inspired by “Another Brick in the Wall”

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