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Director Agnes Varda And French Artist JR Team Up In Road Picture 'Faces Places'


This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic David Edelstein has a review of "Faces Places," a documentary road movie made by the 89-year-old director Agnes Varda and a young French artist who's famous for posting black-and-white photographic images in public places. "Faces Places" had its American premiere at this year's New York Film Festival and will open this month around the country.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: There she is - Agnes Varda, the great French new wave film director, 89 now with wavering eyesight and still charging into every new space and gazing on it like a blank canvas. For her, making cinema isn't abstract. She tells a 33-year-old still photographer and muralist who goes by the name JR that as she ages, she has holes in her memory. Now she wants to document things before they slip away.

Her new documentary, "Faces Places," "Visages Villages" in French, is a road picture and surprising in ways I'd forgotten movies can be. Agnes and JR drive around rural France and find their subjects by design and happenstance. They explore small towns. They interview people. Then JR takes photos and pastes them on walls - epic-sized photos of people and animals printed 10, 30, 60 feet high and affixed to sides of buildings, water towers, even a train - have paste, will travel. Descriptions of "Faces Places" can make it sound at once whimsical and pretentious, the sort of thing the French sometimes do that frankly makes me Francophobish. But it's entirely down-to-Earth. It might be the least arty movie about art ever made.

Early on, Varda and JR come to a town where miners once lived with a block of old row houses that are empty but for an old woman who stubbornly stays on. Agnes and JR put tall, immense photos of long-gone miners on that stretch of houses. Then they put the old woman's tall, immense photo on her house. The face and the place have merged. And then the tears come - the woman's and ours.

The giant photos don't seem superfluous. They fit somehow, taking on the rough texture of the brick or concrete and carrying the past into the living present. It's a kind of alchemy in the classic sense, not spinning straw into gold but finding the gold, the spiritual core in the straw. If that sounds woo-woo, it won't when you see these visages in these villages.

Now the farmer who has to work 2,000 acres by himself stands tall on the side of his barn for the world to see. Three wives of shipyard workers never as visible as their husbands but working in related jobs have their photos plastered to shipping containers piled high in the air so they're humongous. In another village, Agnes and JR meet goat farmers, some of whom burn off the horns so the animals won't fight, others who let goats be goats. They photograph a horned goat, whose image greets people driving into town and is a gentle rebuke to the de-horners.

I wouldn't want to see photos on every building, but the transformative effect of these few is wizardly. Our guides, meanwhile, are the most congenial Wizards imaginable. Varda's hair is fringed in red with a white inner circle like a Bohemian's answer to a monk's bald spot or tonsure. The skinny JR, meanwhile, refuses to remove his dark glasses, vexing Varda with his reclusiveness but thoroughly collaborative in his work.

After Varda visits her ophthalmologist, JR poses people on different levels of an outdoor plaza holding photos of eyechart letters, some blurred to reproduce exactly how Varda sees. Agnes and JR make time to visit a tiny, rural cemetery in which the photographers Henri Cartier Bresson and Martine Franck are buried. Her contemporaries are mostly dead now excepting Jean-Luc Godard, another dark glasses wearer who looms large in the last, not-so-happy sequence. But even when "Faces Places" turned sad, it makes you happy, more alert, more alive. Watching it, I felt like I could suddenly access a greater percentage of my soul.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Amy Tan, author of the novels "The Joy Luck Club," "The Kitchen God's Wife," and "The Valley Of Amazement." She has a new memoir called "Where The Past Begins" in which she reflects on growing up. Her parents were immigrants from China. Her mother was guided by beliefs in curses and luck. Her father, a Baptist minister, was guided by Christian faith. I hope you'll join us.


JACKY TERRASSON: Un, deux, trois.

GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "LA VIE EN ROSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.