A la Ville de Douarnenez: Une Défense

This morning, Jean-Luc Godard was announced by his family as having passed away at the age of 91.

He’s a figure who shouldn’t necessitate introduction, so it’s merely the compulsion in me to acknowledge that his death feels like the last line to an entirely world of cinema has been disconnected from our time. Not only in that he was the last surviving figure of the groundbreaking French New Wave movement that held up a mirror to the world of cinema, but in that I can’t think of any other filmmaker who was working at a time before “modern cinema” as we consider it was established. And part of that was his own fault as his debut 1960 feature Breathless in its casual vogueness and aggressive slicing of the tendons we consider in the portrayal of action and behavior in movies did just as well to demolish and rebuild our sensibilities with how films and narratives are meant to function as the same year’s Psycho and L’Avventura. In the career since he would use that artform as an extension of his interest in reflexively critiquing not only cinema past, and not only cinema to come, but how the world exists and is captured within those 24 frames per second. And this was done comfortably through his own perspective as a Marxist, anti-Zionist, a humanist, and an existentialist, consistently finding means to balance his playfulness towards the building blocks of movies in the function of communicating ideals, some benign (A Woman Is a Woman is easily his most accessible film) and some lacerating (Contempt feels like his angriest of the ones I’ve seen and yet is also my favorite) but always lingering long in my brain and forcing me to re-examine artistic and social conventions in a manner that felt like my imagination was freed up. The result is an easily canonized set of masterpieces in through the 1960s: A Woman Is A Woman, Contempt, Vivre sa Vie, Le Petit Soldat, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, Masculin Féminin: 15 Faits Précis, La Chinoise, and Week-end all being movies that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend as necessary viewings for anyone who wants to be serious about movies.

But there’s also the late career perspective that he lost his relevance, his ability to capture the zeitgeist, and his energy that indicates a joyous love for the movie and I have long been somebody who called horseshit to all of that personally. Goodbye to Language remains one of the most critical experiences I’ve had watching a movie in the theater and I cannot imagine somebody who didn’t have a bleeding heart for film making something as sprawling an attempt at containing it as Histoire(s) du Cinéma nor someone who has lost sight of what humanity brings to the world in Film Socialisme. Some of you guys may recall my list of the Top 10 Most Valuable Players to Cinema in the 2010s (to say nothing of how both Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language were among my favorite movies of the decade) and that Godard was on there: he’s a Most Valuable Player to the artform in and of itself, regardless of the time period. Most of all, he and fellow 2022 death Peter Bogdanovich were instances of the film-critic-to-filmmaker pipeline that make a fool like me foolishly hopeful (even though I’m barely writing on here anymore).

Anyway it is, to me, a shame that the last cinematic element through which I think most people would be exposed to him – given how underseen his final film The Image Book is – is his unseen presence over the penultimate film by a fellow French New Wave figure, Agnès Varda’s Faces Places (co-directed with JR). If you have not seen Faces Places, I do encourage you do so before reading the rest of this (and similarly encourage you watch all of the films I’ve noted up above as well as the general works of Varda… Cléo de 5 à 7 is my favorite) as I’m about to poke and prod at a significant spoiler to that. But near the end of that wonderful movie is a sad sequence that displays the characteristic way in which Godard regrettably alienated most of the people in his life, including his contemporaries like Varda. In the sequence as you will see in the video below, Varda and JR both arrive at the home of Godard after a long journey in which they occasionally discuss the history the two of them had together as collaborators [since Godard acted in an early short of Varda, the very amusing Les Fiancés du Pont Mac Donald ou (Méfiez-Vous des Lunettes Noires)] and even being excited enough to compare JR’s fashion to Godard’s. At the time of this movie, Godard and Varda had not spoken since the death of Varda’s husband fellow French New Wave icon Jacques Demy in 1990 (whose movies you should also watch if you love joy and pain in life: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort is the ideal musical double feature for that).

Faces Places does not reunite the two unfortunately. They arrive to an empty home with only a small message written on the front door’s window: “A la Ville de Douarnenez. Du Côté de la Côte”. And this, in addition to being stood up by her long-time friend, is something she finds upsetting for reasons she explains in such a manner: “A la Ville de Douarnenez” refers to a regular place where Varda, Demy, and Godard would dine together. It also happened to be his only form of communication to Varda when Demy passed away. Having Godard’s absence be compounded by being reminded of the absence of her husband incites her to tearfully decry Godard while graciously leaving bread she bought him for the occasion and leaving behind a message (at least acerbically including “…pas merci d’avoir tenu ta porte fermée”, translated to “… no thanks for keeping your door closed”) before leaving into the very lovely final sequence.

As far as I know, Varda and Godard never reconciled before Varda herself passed away in 2019.

Before I move forward, I want to make clear that the unfortunate truth is that Varda was hurt by what Godard wrote. That’s simply the result of the matter. What I say is not to excuse the action or to devalue Varda’s feelings on meeting a closed door that brought back painful memories – not only of her late husband, but on the last word from somebody who was pretty much estranged as Varda seems to have found this message unsatisfactory and not sufficiently comforting when mourning Demy – but simply to discuss what this moment suggested in the complexity of Godard’s unconscious antagonism. Because when I first saw Faces Places, I joined the same kneejerk condemnation of Godard’s behavior as virtually everyone performed (to the frustrating degree that it ended up being more often discussed than Faces Places itself as a movie). But in the 5 years since, I find I no longer think Godard performed this act to affront Varda. I think it was as much an attempt to square with himself as Contempt was.

When Godard sent that note to Varda 27 years prior, it seemed to invite the revisiting of a time the three of them shared together an act of sincerity and on the face of it, Godard appears to want to invite that pleasant memory once again. But one has to assume Godard was aware that Varda was frustrated by the minimal communication Godard offered in condolences given the lengthy silence between them before Varda reached out about visiting with JR. Nevertheless, bringing it up at the door feels like maybe an extended attempt at apologism for his early communication while still trying to invoke a time and place that one has to assume was pleasant for all parties.

In regards to Godard’s absence… well, I’m not sure such a reunion would be something that most people – especially a filmmaker – would want to have performed on camera. There’s no reason to suppose that Varda would not have had the camera turned off if he had been present and asked, but Godard was not there to request it and I honestly can’t find myself begrudging a man his privacy… only the way he failed to properly correspond with someone who was genuinely excited to reunite with her friend. At the very least, the most cryptic part of his message – “Du Côté de la Côte” which translates to “along the coast” and references an early short Varda made (that everybody should also go watch) – feels to me like an acknowledgement of the journey Varda and JR took rather than just simply considering it a small task.

Maybe I’m being overly generous. Maybe I’m a little bit frustrated also that this single scene was more often used by the internet as a cudgel to talk shit on Godard rather than an anchor to praise Varda’s ability to turn the moment into a launchpad for a touching ending at Faces Places. It certainly was not outside of the norm for Godard to act as a heel to others, even beyond the passionate combativeness with which he stood for his politics and expressed his views on the world circa now (though I do feel there are comments of his that are undeniably antisemitic in divorce from his public decrying of fascism, Nazism, and his long-time defense of Palestine). Both of his ex-wives and former collaborators Anna Karina and Anne Wiazemsky have established his coldness as a person towards them at the end of their time together (hell, Contempt is again basically just dramatizing Godard’s breakdown from Karina). Fellow French New Wave contemporary François Truffaut had his own long and public falling out with Godard through the 60s that met a hard crash after a pair of letters sent since Truffaut’s 1973 film Day for Night (another movie you all must watch) asking for funding to make a film together while calling Day for Night fraudulent as a picture (and asking actor and frequent Truffaut collaborator Jean-Pierre Léaud for money too, which REALLY pissed Truffaut off and brought him to dress Godard down from all angles).

On the special features of the Criterion release for Day for Night, Dudley Andrew argues however based on film references within the letter and postage that as characteristically standoffish as Godard’s communication to Truffaut was… it was an attempt to reconcile as co-workers trying to make movies together. At first glance at this interview, I found it similarly generous for somebody as regularly tough to deal as Godard is. But reading deeper into the matter causes me to consider that Godard as a person was probably as non-straightforward as his films are and while understanding how that became something that certain people formerly in his life decided to wash their hands clean of… why it can be tough to just come right out with asking for your friend to work together again or to have a private moment of remembering your friendship. In particular, the envelope’s return address of “From: a former admirer of J. Daniel-Norman” feels similar to “A la Ville de Douarnenez”: Godard is naming a filmmaker that Truffaut bonded in love for, Jacques Daniel-Norman, and it feels like another attempt to recall memories of camaraderie with Truffaut working in Cahiers du Cinéma.

Anyway, I have no doubt that I’d sooner prefer to be friends with Varda and Demy than Godard (Truffaut… probably, but I would have to think on it knowing his own tempers). But Godard does strike me as somebody who spent his life trying to fight a good fight. He was another human being: extraordinary in areas, unacceptable in others, full of contradictions. And I find the two following quotes give something of a window on what happened to his former friendship with Truffaut:

““If we tore each other apart, little by little, it was for fear of being the first to be eaten alive.”

And why his devotion for the one artform he’s changed irrevocably has transformed into such an easy man to make enemies:

“I think there is something that seems to have stayed with me from the days of the New Wave, even though it no longer exists in this form: arguing about cinema. Because the beautiful thing about cinema is that it still always allows us to argue.”

I don’t know. This is something that’s been swimming in my head for the past several years and Godard’s passing and the shockwave it brings to me knowing that he was one of the last old-school movie giants who lived in the same world as me (last time I had this sense of tremor in me was Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni both dying on the same day) made me want to re-evaluate how I could occasionally find his behavior beyond the screen affrontive. I’m feeling old already at 30 and, I think, growing out of the sort of triggered young combativeness I once had as an animating edge and that he seems to have never lost even through his age of 91. Maybe it’s just envy? Or it’s admiration at how his edge ended up aimed at the complacency of the artform and produced films unlike anything anyone ever made ever. Anyway… no more French New Wave giants. May they all rest in peace.