Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Criterion Collection #419: La Pointe Courte

By Andrew Chan

In the first shot of Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte, the camera travels down a corridor in a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast, brushing against the hanging laundry and peering into open windows. The first several scenes are spent getting acquainted with the town, the difficult work the inhabitants engage in everyday, and the little tragedies befalling them that they accept without melodrama. Soon a couple in urban dress drifts into the frame. We see them from the back at first and then from the front; they are silent at first but then, all of a sudden, extremely talkative about the problems that plague their young marriage. The man (Philippe Noiret), who grew up in la Pointe Courte, is satisfied with the relationship, but the woman (Silvia Monfort), a Parisian, craves something else that she cannot define. As sorrow piles on top of sorrow, the film maintains its surpassingly gentle touch, lightening the mood at times with whimsical music or an eccentric detail. Moving forward and pulling back, it travels between the worlds of the villagers and the spouses, and keeps them separate until a final sequence gathers everyone at the town’s ritual jousting match.

Using this two-stranded pattern, Varda weaves together a film about the communal voice that forms among people—not just the largely anonymous villagers, but also the individualized spouses, who are bored with the intimacy and familiarity that has them speaking each other’s sentences. Knowledge is the other overarching theme: our inability to disown what we know; our desire to always seek the excitement of what we don’t; and the kind of love that forms from knowing people, places, and customs so deeply that you cannot distinguish them from yourself.

As one of the few low-budget French films of its era, the debut of one of the nation’s great unsung directors, and the inadvertent inauguration of the French New Wave, La Pointe Courte is easier to watch today as a historically important artifact than as an aesthetically accomplished artwork. One of its non-textual attractions—as with any work retrospectively positioned as a milestone—lies in the opportunity to reconstruct our mistakenly linear narratives of cinema history around it. Although Varda has famously claimed that she was film illiterate when she began work on this project at the age of 25, the film’s indebtedness to Italian neorealism of the ’40s is as unmistakable as its anticipation of the key works of European cinema that would follow. Its extraordinary visual sophistication recalls the poeticized vérité of Luchino Visconti’s fishing-village epic La Terra Trema, even as Varda’s approach diverges from the neorealist taste for heart-tugging melodrama and goals of political agitation. Also, preceding the first of Bergman’s most popular dramatic films by at least three years, La Pointe Courte can be viewed as a step in the development of the ponderous confessionalism that would become fashionable in the Swedish auteur’s work. Surprisingly, in one of the film’s most distinctive shots—in which half of the husband’s face is covered by the wife’s profile—the link to Bergman appears to be visual as well, presaging the geometrically designed close-ups in Persona (1966) and Cries and Whispers (1972).

But the film that La Pointe Courte most strikingly calls to mind is one to which it shares closer national, ideological, and stylistic ties, namely Alain Resnais’ frustrating masterpiece Hiroshima mon amour, which was produced five years later (perhaps not so coincidentally, Resnais was one of La Pointe Courte's editors). Varda’s debut feels like a milder ancestor to Hiroshima, centering itself (with less anguish and more warmth) on identical issues of place, identity, and the historical baggage of cross-cultural relationships. Varda employs the same stylized language in the dialogue she gives her actors, which reads as exchanges of monologues rather than genuine engagements in conversation. The register and cadence are that of the stage, with inflections (occasionally) of the poetic and (at worst) the thuddingly philosophic. The stylistic traits that La Pointe Courte and Hiroshima share—the marks of an era striving for serious, adult themes in its movies—are exactly those that severely date them, and make them difficult for some contemporary viewers to appreciate. At this early stage in her career, Varda’s sense of cinema was relatively stilted, based primarily on what she learned from her photographic and academic backgrounds—an understandable weakness for a first-time director with no training in film, but one that she would outgrow by the end of the decade.

The age-old problems of cinema and literariness raised by La Pointe Courte’s dialogue extend to the film’s audacious structure, which Varda has admitted to borrowing from William Faulkner’s 1939 novel The Wild Palms. By placing a love story (essentially a couple’s ongoing duet) at the center of a comparatively diffuse, polyphonic portrait of a community, Varda’s set-up shows the potential to teach us how conflicting genres can speak to each other. One major advantage of this form is the way the social consciousness of the film’s neorealist sections acts as a check on the self-absorption of the spouses’ philosophizing. But too much of the film’s tension (between both characters and genres) remains on the page, stifled underneath an overly neat theory. It is Varda’s fully formed visual sensibility that allows us to forget the insistent literariness of her script. Long scenes of the couple’s back-and-forth are punctuated by lovely observations, such as that of a crab scuttling through water, or a slippery sea creature coiled in a bucket. But the film’s most breathtaking moments are not limited to images of the natural world. My favorite scene occurs when Monfort and Noiret crawl into the belly of an abandoned ship, and are cradled in its shadows.

If La Pointe Courte is indeed the first major film of the French New Wave (as many scholars now acknowledge), predating even 1958’s Le Beau Serge, then why is it excluded from popular histories of that movement? Some of the more obvious answers include the institutional sexism that made the nouvelle vague a boys’ club, as well as Varda’s career-long alignment with the period’s less commercially appealing Left Bankers (Alain Resnais, Chris Marker), who did not share the common link of Cahiers du Cinéma that united auteurs as disparate as Rohmer, Rivette, and Chabrol. In addition, unlike the more popular Cléo from 5 to 7—though not dissimilar from, say, Rohmer’s Moral Tales—La Pointe Courte is completely lacking in the youthful bursts of energy found in a film like Breathless. It is, after all, partly about a couple’s quiet initiation into adulthood, that threshold past which an authentically youthful perspective of the world is all but irretrievable.

Alternately cynical and optimistic, Varda’s film encourages an outlook of acceptance: in the marriage melodrama, it muses on the inevitability of diminished passion and erotic feeling, and in the neorealist sections, it reconciles with the naturalness of death. That Varda adopts this view without draping her film in melancholy is a rare achievement, unfortunately marred by a conclusion that feels pat and unearned, like a naïve person’s affectation of maturity. In spite of its flaws, though, La Pointe Courte establishes many of the trademarks that have defined Varda’s career up to her last major feature, the 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I, including her resourceful use of settings, her acute eye, and a remarkably complex and distinctive modulation of tone. Already apparent are qualities that could be seen as having filtered down to (if not having directly influenced) a loose-knit feminist aesthetic in contemporary French cinema: the lyricism and stillness that Claire Denis has taken to new heights and lengths; the alertness to both nature and the nuances of female agency found in the work of Pascale Ferran. Calling Varda “the Grandmother of the French New Wave” may in fact do a disservice to a legacy that long ago transcended the zeitgeist it fostered.


Image/Sound/Extras: Spanning three decades in the career of a filmmaker who has been active for more than fifty years, The Criterion Collection’s 4 by Agnès Varda gathers together uniformly superb transfers of four fiction features and three shorts. Also included is a trunkload of extras, many of which seem to have been specifically designed for this set. Taken together, the films show the remarkable growth of an artist, as well as the shifts of aesthetic and thematic preoccupations across the second half of cinema’s first century. What the disc for La Pointe Courte lacks in the variety of material that supplements the three other titles, it makes up for with two substantial interviews of the director—one shot recently in her office in France, the other cobbled together from excerpts of a 1964 episode of the TV show Cinéastes de notre temps. The contrast between the younger and older Vardas is a pleasure in itself, but both featurettes also have a great deal to say about the circumstances under which her career in film began. Produced at a time when aspiring French directors had to climb the studio ladder to make their first feature, La Pointe Courte was the act of daring that jump-started the New Wave and its promotion of personal cinema. Varda recalls the film’s journey from Cannes, where it received critical acclaim but no interest from distributors, to Paris two years later, where it quickly became a favorite among intellectuals and taste-makers.


Andrew Chan is a poet and film critic currently studying at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the creator of the blog Movie Love.

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