An odd-couple art doc for the ages

We spoke to enigmatic collagist JR about his cinematic collaboration with a legend of the French New Wave.


JR and Agnès Varda in Faces Places.

It almost seems like a pairing from an odd-couple cop movie from the ’80s: how could JR and Agnès Varda really be friends? What could a hip, 30-something artist who never takes off his sunglasses really have in common with the impish, nearly-90 Varda, a fiercely solitary filmmaker who remains one of the only living members of the French New Wave?

The answer, of course, is art.

Faces Places follows JR and Varda on a trip across France to participate in one of JR’s signature projects: instant photography turned (through the use of a truck outfitted with a printer) into large posters that are then glued onto surfaces. JR and Varda meet the inhabitants of various small towns, take their picture and, by the end of the day, a 10 or 15-foot-tall print of them is glued onto a barn wall, a stone cliff, the side of a factory or any other surface you can imagine. Faces Places is about the art (JR calls it a collage), but it’s also about the generation-spanning friendship between its two protagonists and the relationship they themselves have with the subjects they meet along the way.

“It’s very fast,” says JR of the photography process. “That’s what Agnes really appreciated about it, I think. We could meet someone, photograph them and within the hour we’d have something that we could start gluing. We had the truck with us, so all we needed to do was measure the building. Printing only took a couple of minutes. It was very improvisational — that’s the nature of my work, to have an idea and be able to apply it almost immediately.”

JR and Varda are the film’s subjects, but they’re also the film’s directors. “At the beginning, we really did have to discuss it,” says JR. “We didn’t get into this with the idea that it would even be a movie. The idea was to work on a project together and see where it would lead us, maybe get a five- or ten-minute film out of it. We didn’t really plan to make a feature. We did eventually come to the realization that we’d been kind of a funny pair from the beginning. We were aware that people saw us arrive in their towns and think ‘What are those two doing together?!’ but, at the same time, part of documentary filmmaking is turning an eye towards people who don’t have a voice, people who aren’t seen usually. We needed to find the right balance.”

It’s hard to believe that the film was almost an afterthought to the project. Though very spontaneous, the finished product doesn’t have any trace of improvisation. “It’s hard to believe because the final product connects so perfectly,” he laughs. “But the truth is we really did make it very spontaneously, without knowing if we were ever going to be able to link it all together. That’s the magic of editing — and the magic of Agnès! She’s the one who edited it and made it make sense. We also gave ourselves the opportunity to fail. (…) Looking back on it, we were really operating in a kind of artistic blur.”

One of the themes of the film is Varda’s failing eyesight, “Agnès revealed to me very early on that she was losing her sight,” says JR. “I found it fascinating, in fact. I told her I would really like to talk about that in the film. It wasn’t necessarily fast and easy; she wasn’t really into it at first. It took a little while before she started warming up to the idea that I wanted to talk about her, rather than talk about her illness very directly. That’s how it started, and eventually we found the balance of it all in editing.”

Faces Places also never shies away from conflict, capturing some squabbles between Varda and JR that shade in their image of a cartoonish mismatched pair. “Agnès would disagree with me on that because she’d call those discussions,” says JR. “I would call them little conflicts! We had quite a few of them, since we had to discuss every aspect of everything. You also have to keep in mind that Agnès never co-directed or co-wrote anything in her entire life! She always decided everything herself, from A to Z. Here we had to consult on every single little thing, and it was a process. But we kept on doing in, and we’re still doing it now! We’re in Los Angeles right now, and we never really know what we’re going to glue and why. (…) She’s right, though; disagreements make everything better. I have to admit that I’m pretty instinctual, and Agnès is more likely to take her time and think things through. I think we complete each other in that way.”

There’s also an impermanence to JR’s work that the film captures. The pictures are glued to surfaces with a water soluble adhesive, meaning that the installations are at the mercy of rain, snow and wind. In one sequence, JR and his team glue a photo onto a old bunker that erosion has placed sideways on a beach. The next morning, high tide has completely washed away their work.

“I’ve seen all my installations disappear, but that’s the one that disappeared the fastest!” says JR. “It did affect us all as well because it was one of the more technically difficult installations. There was a lot of wind and it was even difficult to get Agnès all the way down there. The cars would sink in the mud! I remember that day as one where everything was a fight. We went home to sleep — and we slept very well because the wind coming off the sea is very calming — and when we woke up the next day, there’s nothing left. It’s as if it was a dream, but we filmed it. We preserved it. That’s where I think collaborating with Agnès really pays off: we have a documentation of the ephemerous that becomes permanent thanks to the film.” ■

Faces Places opens in theatres on Friday, Oct 20.