At 89, Agnès Varda is an artist with nothing to prove and everything to discover. That makes her an ideal traveling companion.
Her recent documentaries are unabashedly personal, infused with her voice, eye, wry and rueful on-camera presence. The films are record of her musings and insights as she explores parts of the modern world — especially but not exclusively France — that less-attentive voyagers might overlook.
The latest of these adventures, "Faces Places," finds her in the company of a 34-year-old French photographer and environmental artist known as JR. Together they set out on a series of meandering road trips through agricultural and industrial towns, talking to people and taking their pictures. (The French title, "Visages Villages," is more specific than the English version about the kinds of places that interest them.)
JR's van is equipped with a printer that produces portraits big enough to cover the sides of barns, houses and apartment buildings and even a towering stack of shipping containers. Their subjects are happy to chat and are touched (if also sometimes a little embarrassed) to behold their likenesses turned into large-scale art installations.
The easygoing, episodic structure of their journey gives "Faces Places" a deceptively casual air. Varda, a small woman with a two-toned pageboy and an open, unsentimental manner, and JR, who is tall and stylish and never takes off his sunglasses, are a charming pair.
The film works just fine as an anthology of amiable encounters and improvised collaborations. But it's a lot more than that. Despite its unassuming, conversational ethos, the movie reveals itself as powerful, complex and radical. Varda's modesty is evidence of her mastery, just as her playful demeanor is the expression of a serious aesthetic commitment.
Almost by stealth, but also with cheerful forthrightness, she communicates a rich and challenging array of feelings and ideas. As we contemplate those faces and places, we are invited to reflect on the passage of time and the nature of memory, on the mutability of friendship and the durability of art, on the dignity of labor and the fate of the European working class.
Varda and JR visit a town in France's northern coal-producing region where the mines have shut down. They call on a prosperous farmer, factory workers and retirees, a group of longshoremen and their wives. Without pressing a political agenda or bringing up matters of ideology or identity, they evoke a history of proud struggle and bitter defeat, a chronicle etched in the stones of the villages and the lines on the faces.
Beneath the jauntiness and good humor there is an unmistakably elegiac undertone to the film, an implicit acknowledgment of loss. The places will crumble and the faces will fade, and the commemorative power of the images that JR and Varda make will provide a small and partial compensation for this gloomy inevitability. The world and its inhabitants are protean and surprising, but also almost unbearably fragile, and you feel the pull of gravity even in the film's most lighthearted passages.
Varda is too generous to make the movie all about her, even though no one else could have made it. "Faces Places" is unforgettable, not because of dramatic moments or arresting images, but because once you've seen it, you want to take it with you, like a souvenir.
★★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG; in subtitled French.
Theater: St. Anthony Main.