How Big Can You Get?

FACES PLACES (12A) 2017 France 94mins. Directors: Agnès Varda and JR.

Just when you despair that maybe film can only do one thing, and that not a thing which seems to be the most important thing in our times of rampaging isolation and loneliness (speak for yourself), along comes a film from someone, a person indistinguishable from the nouvelle vague, a person you would have thought most likely to be focussed on the inner life, who comes up with a film which gives an answer to the question: if not that, what?

How can film turn its attention away from the inner life, from the great turning inwards that seems to characterise our benighted age, and look toward something outside, something larger, something which connects rather than isolates? Can image be put to such a use? Or are images, as the situationists contended, fundamentally destructive to society? Are we doomed to live vicariously, forever playing our own film on the inside screen of our mind’s eye?

Agnès Varda and JR (not Ewing) tour the French countryside in JR’s especially kitted out van, searching for likely subjects, people in their location, in their milieu, where they maybe interact or make a difference, where there is some kind of connection to the larger story of place.

JR’s van is a reverse or anti-photo booth, in the sense that it is a photo booth but rather than the result being a tiny, passport size or slightly larger, picture, it prints out gigantic, enormous images, pictures the size of the side of a house or even the size of dozens of shipping containers stacked on top of each other. This isn’t exactly a simple thing, either technically or in terms of person-power (JR seems to have a large team in the background) but the result is wonderful. People scaled up to a size suggestive of their true place in the scheme of things.

JR is a man who wears sunglasses, at all times, and there is an ongoing gag, a sort of needling relationship between Agnès and these glasses, which is resolved in a very satisfying way. I say no more, other than it suggests a kind of renunciation, or rethinking perhaps, of those ideas to which she ascribed in the ‘60s, in the mythic days of the Left Bank.

This is an unusual, but very satisfying, and funny film; a kind of exclamation mark writ large to an historic moment in film culture.

Paul Corcoran