It’s no secret: Modern art gets a bad rap. While obviously appreciated within its own academic and professional circles, it’s safe to say that many don’t find modern art as profoundly moving as film, music or literature. Often smeared as pretentious and inaccessible, modern art still has difficulty shaking the image of a turtlenecked, white-haired Andy Warhol. Enter street muralist JR and New Wave director Agnès Varda, two French artists who joined together with an idea: make a film showcasing a uniquely human facet of modern art that saves memories from antiquity and reaches people from all walks of life. Despite their 56-year age difference, the two are united through art and a shared vision. In the early scenes of the film, Agnès explains the magnetism she felt through JR’s murals and her desire to collaborate with him; to make art “together, but differently.” The result is a gorgeous, moving film that shatters the purported headiness of modern art, instead showing the power with which it touches the soul and brings people together.
Over the course of the film, the pair journeys through the French countryside, photographing a wide array of people from all types of backgrounds. One of the film’s greatest triumphs is its ability to portray even the darkest parts of the world with beauty and joy. The two visit a neighborhood of abandoned houses, once the home of coal miners and their families, where the neighborhood’s sole remaining occupant — Jeannine, a coal miner’s daughter — lives alone out of sheer stubbornness. Agnès and JR create massive, two-story murals of the miners who once lived in the neighborhood. When Jeannine sees the finished product, she breaks down in tears as Agnès comforts her, “It’s not sad, Jeannine. It’s beautiful.” Agnès and JR create stunning, immensely personal homages to bygone people and things that tug at the heartstrings of factory workers and art critics alike.
When describing why she has embarked on the project, Agnès states, “I fear that each face I meet may be my last.” There’s an obvious foreboding to that statement, as she nears 90 years of age, but she says it with a levity that implies a different meaning; Agnès is documenting the faces of those she meets not for her own sake, but because someday those faces too will be lost to time. The film focuses greatly on the ephemeral nature of life and beauty, but rather than lamenting this, it celebrates it. At one point, the two travel to Normandy to create a massive mural — an image of a young man sitting on a dock — on the face of an abandoned Nazi bunker. At high tide, the mural is washed away completely and the bunker remains. While this may have seemed like a futile gesture, it’s a perfect example of what “Faces Places” is all about: Two people looking to find the beauty in a harsh, violent world and highlight it, if only for a little bit.
Toward the film’s conclusion, JR creates a mural of Agnès’s eyes on the side of a train. He looks at her, smiling, and says, “This train will go places you’ve never been.” So too will art, once created, reach people one has never met; move them in ways one cannot fully understand. There’s a kind of joyful madness to Agnès and JR’s battle against the weathering forces of time. In the end, there will always be pain and suffering, but “Faces Places” shows that so long as there are two people with a camera, a vision and a love for living, the world can be a beautiful place.