Agnès Varda and JR in 'Faces Places'
Agnès Varda and JR in 'Faces Places'

Agnès Varda, the director and on-screen narrator of Faces Places, is a striking presence in her own documentary. Her clothes are flame-red or purple, as if fiery with heraldic passion, while her startling two-tone hairstyle — white in the middle and red-dyed around the edges — irresistibly suggests a monastic tonsure.

The latest film from the 90-year-old French New Wave veteran is a typical, even archetypal, Varda mixture of the combative and the contemplative. She is determined to empower, if only symbolically, the disadvantaged. But she is also happy to muse and philosophise. Varda partners the photo-mural artist JR in a trans-France odyssey. Place by place, village by village — the original French title was Visages Villages — they ask the dispossessed, or just the quirkily distinctive, to pose for black-and-white pics. These are then blown up and pasted giant-size on buildings or landmarks.

An eviction-facing householder in a condemned mining village gets a wall-sized mug shot. Three women dockers, or their images, stand tall on an assemblage of shipping containers. (Their real selves sit high, feet dangling, in three empty containers where their hearts would be. Clever!) For light relief, Varda’s photo-enlarged toes adorn a freight-train carriage.

The film is capricious, engaging and for nostalgists even a little wistful. This adventure in monochrome imaging — grab a camera and capture the world — could be the French New Wave revivified. We even end with a trip to Jean-Luc Godard’s house in Switzerland. The visit goes mortifyingly awry. But that only produces the perfect coda: Varda and JR staring out at a lake wondering if life is worth the time and devotion we give it. Or if death, conversely, is worth the bad press. “I’m looking forward to it,” Varda says, worryingly but in a tone of characteristic, redemptive wonderment.

★★★★☆

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