When a figure as titanic as Jean-Luc Godard dies in the middle of a film festival like Toronto, it feels like the world should just stop. But as the anniversary passes every year, I’m reminded that even 9/11 only shut down the festival for the day, and as TIFF head Cameron Bailey pointed out Tuesday morning after the news broke, Godard had hardened into such an anti-sentimental crank that he might have taken an outpouring of flowery postmortem sentiment as an affront. Godard was apparently eager that people should know that he died, at the age of 91, by assisted suicide, not because he was sick but because he was “simply exhausted.”
With every theater in town booked, there was no immediate screening planned in homage to Godard’s epochal career, which at least absolved some unlucky programmer of having to decide which of a dozen or more indelible classics could possibly sum him up. But fortunately the festival already contained a small, perfect tribute to Godard, one that debuted three days before he died.
As one who worships at the altars of both Agnès Varda and Documentary Now!, the news that the latter would be devoting an episode to parodying the former took me to the happiest of places. (The new season begins airing on IFC on Oct. 19.) And I’ve been watching the series long enough to know that its ostensible parodies are often more like alternate-universe emulations, immaculately matching the originals’ look and feel with the care of an obsessive acolyte. But even by those standards, “Trouver Frisson” goes the extra mile. Although it’s nominally based on Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès, the episode plays more like a knowing tribute to Varda’s entire career, from the end to very nearly the beginning. The shots of the Varda stand-in Ida Leos (played by French actress Liliane Rovère) zooming in on her leaky ceiling while playfully musing about life are straight out of Varda’s The Gleaners and I, a visionary work of early digital cinema which used a handheld mini DV camera as the ultimate expression of what the French New Wave’s predecessors dubbed the caméra-stylo—a camera you could use as fluidly and personally as a writer uses a pen. And Ida’s contentious relationship with her longtime cinematic colleague and sometimes friend, played by the Belgian actor Ronald Guttman, is an obvious reference to the place Godard occupies in Varda’s Faces Places. Or rather, the place he doesn’t occupy.
Faces Places didn’t turn out to be Varda’s final film—that ended up being 2019’s Varda by Agnès, a sort of self-curated retrospective of a career that only received its proper reverence in her last years—but it has the feeling of one, not least because one of its subjects is how Varda’s failing eyesight makes it increasingly difficult to make movies. Taking on the younger artist JR as her co-director and onscreen traveling partner, Varda roams through the French countryside, offering small-town inhabitants new ways of seeing themselves, even as her own sight dwindles. JR’s ubiquitous sunglasses, which he refuses to remove despite Varda’s pleadings, put her in mind of her old friend Godard, who maintained a similar affectation during his youth. The two were early allies, although Varda made her first movie while Godard was still an aspiring critic, and Godard appears in a film within Varda’s breakthrough feature, 1962’s Cleo From 5 to 7, starring in a short silent-film pastiche which the movie’s protagonist watches during the titular timespan. His character learns the world seems much less dark when he takes his sunglasses off.
Both onscreen and, apparently, in his later years in life, Godard seemed to relish being difficult to approach. While Varda was becoming an increasingly vivid and genial figure in front of her own lens, Godard turned out daunting cinematic essays that were more frequently hailed than understood. In Faces Places, Varda attempts to arrange a reunion with her old friend, their first in years, and she and JR travel to Godard’s home in Switzerland to meet him. But they find only a locked house and a note scrawled on the window. Varda is reduced to tears, calling Godard a “dirty rat”—and since then, the first thing that’s come to my mind when I think of Godard is not the face of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Pierrot Le Fou or Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie, but a heartbroken Agnès Varda.
The Godard in “Trouver Frisson” isn’t an antisocial prankster, just an old man in assisted living, who, like the Varda stand-in, has misplaced his joie de vivre. But it’s moving nonetheless to see the show’s Varda coax its Godard out of his doldrums, even recreating the iconic scene they shot together when they were young. Here it’s Godard who puts Varda in his movie, in a riff on the moment in Band of Outsiders when the film’s antic rebels break into a dance called the Madison. (In Faces Places, Varda attempts to recreate the scene where the same characters attempt a speed run through the Louvre, but she has to do it in a wheelchair.)
They’re too old to kick their legs up the way they did, but they dance with abandon and good cheer, in a way the real Varda and Godard never got to. The scene was poignant when only Varda was gone, and it’s doubly so now, a tribute to what they meant to the world and what they meant to each other, and the power of the artform they moved forward to correct the inadequacies in both.