PARIS—There’s a scene at the beginning of Faces Places, Agnès Varda and JR’s unassuming 2017 documentary of their road trip around France, when the film director and photographer meet a woman who refuses to move out of her home in public housing once built for families of coal miners, even though the local authorities want to move her elsewhere. Varda, a pioneer of the French New Wave who died on Friday at 90, and JR, the globe-traveling large-scale photographer, take the woman’s portrait, then blow up the image and paste it on the facade of her house.
When the woman comes out of the house to see what they’ve done—sees such a big image of her own face—she begins to cry. Her tears are complicated. But mostly they are about what happens when a person accustomed to being ignored feels seen. Faces Places is a film about making people feel recognized, about making the invisible visible.
I’ve thought about Faces Places, and that scene in particular, a lot in the past few months—ever since demonstrators wearing yellow safety vests have gathered weekly across France, especially at roundabouts on the margins of cities, to protest a fuel-tax hike and the rising cost of living. The “yellow vest” movement is about many things, but above all it is about a desire by citizens to feel seen, to feel recognized and appreciated (in their case by President Emmanuel Macron). Faces Places is not a political movie, but it’s a close and therefore telling look at la France profonde, or the rural and provincial France that so often feels left out of the national conversation in a country whose cultural and political life is centered in Paris.