Review: ‘Faces Places’ takes a delightful road trip across France

December 27, 2017 GMT

In American movies, the idea of a road trip is likely to conjure images of Chevy Chase in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” For the French, it’s something else entirely, and the proof is in “Faces Places,” the sweetly moving documentary chronicling the cross-country art project undertaken by then 33-year-old photo-muralist/poster artist JR and 88-year-old film director Agnes Varda, one of the giants of the French New Wave.

What at first might seem like some sort of arcane, art-school stunt - the lanky JR, with his hipster hat, shades and facial scruff, careening around the French countryside with a woman more than twice his age and half his size - turns into a whimsical, charming conversation about life, art, people and history. When they’re cruising on some back country road singing along to Anita Ward’s 1979 disco hit “Ring My Bell,” one of the most infectiously joyous moments in a film this year, they could be grandmother and grandson sharing familial affection through a quirky pop-culture connection.

Yet what gives “Faces, Places” additional emotional heft is the collection of people they meet along the way. JR and Varda are traveling in a van that doubles as a portable photo studio. They take photographs of people and animals - dockworkers’ wives, a waitress, the last resident of a housing community for mining families, goats - and instantly print out the images on huge sheets that are then plastered on previously gray, unadorned walls around town. Seeing these ordinary people treated as icons, and learning their stories, is a surprisingly touching experience.

If “Faces Places,” which is co-directed by JR and Varda, has a flaw it is that far more is learned about the latter than the former. Varda talks about her friendship with fellow New Wave provocateur Jean-Luc Godard (whom they attempt to visit), her failing eyesight (they plaster a photo of her eyes on a tanker train, which will be able to “see” France long after her vision and she are gone), and her friends who have passed away, like Guy, who modeled for some of her projects.

JR, on the other hand, stubbornly refuses to remove his hat or sunglasses and little is mentioned of his private life. Like fellow street artist Banksy, JR has long cultivated an air of mystery. In the film, he doesn’t even say his full name (it’s Jean Rene). In fact, Varda’s mission throughout “Faces Places” is to get him to remove his self-imposed barrier from the world. She finally pushed Godard, who also liked to wear sunglasses in public, to briefly take his shades off once, and she’s determined to do the same with JR.

Still, there’s a chemistry and respect between the two of them, palpable in the film’s first moments, that is inspiring. And when the credits roll 89 minutes later, you realize that this is one journey where you never once crankily asked, “Are we there yet?”