At 89, Agnès Varda is not only one of two surviving members of the French New Wave (Jean-luc Godard being the other), she’s practically the grandmama of cinema — a diminutive, compassionate pixy with a camera in her hand and mischief in her eye. On the evidence of her latest movie, “Faces Places,” she’s the soul of France as well.
More properly, Varda is intent on tracking down the soul of her country as it still exists in France’s small towns and working-class inhabitants. The documentary is an absolute delight, but it has a faith in everyday folks that feels both stalwart and melancholy, aware that these are exactly the people being swept away by the tides of modernity. It’s a sociopolitical cri de coeur disguised as a vacation.
Varda has a traveling companion and co-director in JR, the street artist-photographer whose real name is unknown. The two make an engaging Mutt-and-Jeff pair, the tiny film legend with her two-toned bowl haircut and the lanky, outgoing ex-graffiti brat who never takes off his sunglasses. (The affectation reminds her affectionately of Godard.)
In “Faces Places” — the original French title is “Visages Villages,” which is more to the point — Varda and JR travel around France in his mobile photo booth/darkroom/printer/van. They pull into a village, take photos of the locals, make supersize prints, and plaster them on walls, water towers, and other spaces.
What sounds like defacement is in fact a celebration of lives that go unnoticed by too many — including press and politicians — and this is understood by the men and women captured by JR’s lens. A stop in a dying mining town results in abandoned company homes mural-ized with photos of long-gone miners. The one hold-out, a proud old woman named Jeanine, sees her craggy face reproduced on the entire front of her house and weeps with gratitude at being finally noticed.
As JR handles the photography, Varda wanders around peering into lives and asking warm, nosy questions. Heading into farm country, they put a farmer’s giant photo-portrait on the side of his barn, then let him show off the computerized equipment that allows him to farm 2,000 acres solo; eventually he admits “I’m just a passenger” in his own tractors.
We meet the Ping-Pong playing safety inspector at a hydrochloric acid factory; a shy café waitress whose giant dress-up photo portrait becomes the toast of her town; the cheese-making couple who gave away their milking machines and milk their 60 goats by hand “because it is such a peaceful moment.” We meet a young small-town bell-ringer who learned the art from his father, who learned it from his father.
The movie makes you see all the people we tend to look past. One village eccentric, his mouth an ancient graveyard of teeth, leads us to the bric-a-brac home he has built for himself in the woods and mulls his life. “I was born in the shadow of a star,” he tells Varda. “My mother, the moon, gave me her coolness. My father, the sun, gave me his warmth and the universe to live in. Imagine that, I have so much in this life.”
“Faces Places” is full of such found moments of joy and reflection. Varda herself is feeling the press of years; her eyesight is failing and she says at one point, “Every person I meet feels like my last.” The youthful JR cheers her up by arranging a human eye chart — you have to see it to believe it — and the two re-create the headlong dash down the Louvre’s Grand Gallery from Godard’s 1964 “Bande à Part.”
“Are you afraid of death?,” the young artist asks his older friend. “I don’t think so. I think about it a lot.”
After the Normandy tides take one of the plastered murals from the side of a beached World War II blockhouse, Varda chirps, “The image had vanished. We’ll vanish too!”
The vibe between the two co-directors is a great source of the pleasure in “Faces Places”; Varda and JR are teacher and pupil, working colleagues, artists, bickering friends. At one point, JR photographs Varda’s wrinkled feet and cloudy eye and plasters the prints on two immense train tanker cars. To an amused but baffled onlooker, Varda explains “The point is the power of imagination. . . . We enjoy it, and we hope you do, too.” Anyone who can’t enjoy this wise and soulful film has to consider whether they’ve given up on the movies, and on life.
Written and directed by (and starring) JR and Agnès Varda. At Coolidge Corner. 89 minutes. PG (brief nude images, thematic elements). In French with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.