French auteur Agnès Varda may be gone, but graffiti artist and photographer JR continues the work they collaborated on, and documented, in 2017’s “Faces Places,” creating large-scale installations in which impoverished and/or fragmented locales are plastered with images of their residents. “Paper & Glue” is an unofficial companion piece to JR and Varda’s prior non-fiction film, focusing exclusively on the former’s career, and while it certainly proves a similar celebration of art’s ability to give voice to the voiceless, and to build bridges between disparate individuals and classes, it lacks its predecessor’s novelty and depth. Given its outsized subject matter, a limited theatrical release makes aesthetic sense, but its box-office prospects nonetheless appear small.
“Paper & Glue” opens with the Varda quote, “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes.” JR’s documentary both agrees with that sentiment and serves as its flip-side, contending that landscapes are comprised of fascinating men and women whose stories are yearning to be told. His mural-centric output seeks to promote that notion, broadcasting faces of the marginalized and disenfranchised as a means of amplifying their presence in the world. Designed to force people to look at those they don’t normally see and, in doing so, to understand that we’re no different from one another, JR’s vision is to unite the world by empowering the powerless to speak for themselves.
If one doesn’t comprehend that from the projects on display in “Paper & Glue,” the perpetually sunglassed JR makes it clear by routinely restating his guiding ethos in narration. Repetition is a constant shortcoming of JR’s film, which so quickly and definitively forwards the principles behind its author’s art that it almost immediately runs out of unique things to say. Rather, it simply rehashes them in a series of new and old portraits of JR installations, each of which takes a similar tack: locate an ostracized group; photograph its members in close-up in order to spotlight their basic humanity; and then blow up those snapshots to enormous dimensions and glue them to the walls of homes and public spaces.
In “Paper & Glue,” we see JR do this at the Mexican-American border where he hosts a cross-country meal, in a Rio de Janeiro favela wracked by gang violence, in Clichy-Montfermeil’s neglected Les Bosquets housing complex where he made his public-showmanship name — and first met his long-time friend Ladj Ly (now the acclaimed director of 2019’s “Les Misérables”) — and at a California supermax prison where he strikes up an unlikely bond with inmate Kevin, whose left cheek boasts a swastika tattoo. By placing these ventures side by side, JR equates them and their subjects. Yet by refusing to also investigate their stark differences — for example, that Kevin and his imprisoned brethren are violent criminals whose own conduct has left them “forgotten,” whereas favela lifer Rosiete is a brave and innocent woman struggling to endure hardship not of her own making — his overarching point comes across as somewhat glib.
Jauntily scored by Adam Peters and jazzily edited by Keiko Deguchi, “Paper & Glue” benefits from the earnest enthusiasm of JR, whose eagerness and energy are matched by the strength of his convictions. JR’s beliefs are articulated so frequently that they might come across as platitudes if not for the striking power of his work, which uses enormity to wordlessly express his message, and whose impermanence additionally reflects the flesh-and-blood mortality of those captured in his frame. Far more than JR’s exposition, it’s those vistas of titanic eyes and visages which say much about the universal ties that bind us all together.