FACES PLACES

★★★★★

THE EMPATHY ENGINE

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Chris Edwards
15th August 2017

Not every great filmmaker gets to sign off with a great film. Even fewer are able to incorporate the very nature of this farewell into the film itself, tying it into the fabric of the film’s DNA so intrinsically, crafting their own ode to the art form they’re leaving behind. Now, this may have nothing to do with Agnès Varda, one of the most influential contributors to the French New Wave that seismically shifted the landscape of cinema in the twentieth century. The 88-year old Belgian director, who has been one of the most vital voices in international independent filmmaking for decades, hasn’t explicitly stated that this will be her last film. However, should it be (and based on her age, failing eyesight, and the confounding difficulty she’s having in securing financing, it most likely will be), it is a most beautifully perfect grace note of a farewell.

The documentary chronicles Varda’s friendship with young visual artist JR – a tall, bearded 33-year old, permanently hidden behind dark sunglasses – as the two co-directors travel the French countryside, meeting locals, listening to their stories, and turning them into giant photographic artworks that JR emblazons across apartment buildings, barns, factories and even rubble. Ostensibly, that’s it. The entire film, all 89 minutes, is just that. And it’s wonderful.

'FACES PLACES' TRAILER

Varda and JR are a beautifully mismatched odd couple, but their shared curiosity and boundless imaginations bind them together. Really, their partnership is the film’s warm centre, as they gently bicker and trade views on art and the act of creation, it’s clear that each has found in the other a kindred spirit, regardless of age. The way they collaborate effortlessly, bouncing ideas off of each other and pushing each other’s flights of fancy, is just endlessly joyful in and of itself. But it’s their subjects, and the artists’ relationships with them, which push this film over the edge into masterpiece territory.

I could list each and every tiny episode of creation and connection in the film, and endlessly gush over the tiny details in the stories these people share, or I could just describe the overwhelming cumulative effect that this film and these people create together. It is stunning how rife with unassuming humanity and empathy this quiet, charming documentary is, and how powerful its conception of art and the generosity of creation ends up being. These two artists are each ceaselessly inquisitive when it comes to people, in such a genuine, heartfelt manner. Each of the figures that they encounter on their travels reveals to the pair facets of their lives that may not immediately jump out to the casual passer-by – loneliness, fortitude, friendship, and beauty – but are in fact lying in wait just beneath the surface.

It is stunning how rife with unassuming humanity and empathy this quiet, charming documentary is...

At one point in the film, the focus shifts onto Varda herself, as the great director reveals in detail the degeneration of her eyesight, an upsettingly ironic fate for such an artist. However, even this then becomes a movingly light, quiet moment, as JR helps her convey what this process looks like from the inside by creating a life-sized, blurry, and ever so slightly moving eye chart – yet another tiny, tossed-off moment of visually striking empathy. This then extends even further to the final piece that JR makes for Varda, one that shouldn’t be spoiled, but is nevertheless profoundly striking in its big-hearted simplicity.

I cannot tell you how fantastically timely I found this film. The great philosopher for our times, one Tilda Swinton, once called cinema “the ultimate compassion machine – the empathy engine”, and I can’t think of a more fitting way to describe this film. Reinforcing the ability of art and artists to form connections and provide windows into the lives of people who are just like us, and also not at all, the film is a moving tribute to the act of creation and the bonds that that act can form.

Please, please see it.

Looking for more Melbourne International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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