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Agnes Varda
1954 || 86 mins

La Pointe Courte is an impoverished seaside fishing village in southern France where the fisherman scratch a living trawling for shellfish, often in lagoons banned by government health authorities where the shellfish are thought to be contaminated. While the fishermen evade the coastal patrols, village life goes on as normal: an unmarried mother has to cope with the sudden death of her child, a young man has to deal with the stern father of the girl he wishes to marry, and on Sunday the whole community gathers by the canal to watch jousting matches on gondolas.

Meanwhile Lui (Philippe Noiret), recently returned from Paris to the village where he grew up, meets his wife Elle (Silvia Monfort) at the station. As they wander together in the fields, along the canal and the beaches, they talk about their troubled relationship. While she is ready for a separation, he still hopes that they can work things out.

see also articles on:
Top 10 Varda Movies || Agnes Varda Profile|| French New Wave History || French New Wave Film Guide

We glide weightlessly down the narrow streets of a Mediterranean fishing village: laundry flaps in the breeze, waves lap on the shore, a cat meanders in and out of a doorway. This is the world of La Point Courte as seen through the filmic eye of Agnes Varda, at the time a 26 year old photojournalist who had never made any of kind film before; who had, in point of fact, rarely even visited the cinema before. Unlike the other New Wave directors, none of whom had yet made a feature film, Varda was not a passionate cinephile. Her background was in art, literature and theatre. Nevertheless, in 1954, after seeing some footage she had shot with a borrowed 35mm camera in La Pointe Courte as a favour for a friend, she decided to swap her stills camera for a motion-picture camera. With money from a small inheritance and loans from friends she set up a production company, Ciné-Tamaris, and made the film for a tenth of the cost of an average French film at the time. By working completely outside the mainstream industry, retaining authorial control over script and direction, shooting exclusively on location and mixing professional and non-professional actors, Varda set a precedent which Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and her friend and editor of the film, Alain Resnais, would follow in the coming years.

One of the most striking aspects of La Pointe Courte is the way the two disparate narrative strands alternate throughout the film. In a magazine interview in 1962 Varda explained her approach: “I had a very clear plan for La Pointe Courte: it was to present two themes, that, while not really contradictory, were problems that cancelled one another out when set side by side. They were first a couple reconsidering their relationship, and second a village that is trying to resolve several collective problems of survival. The film was made up of chapters, so while the two themes were never mixed together there was the possibility for the spectator to oppose or superimpose them.” She cited William Faulkner’s novel Wild Palms as the key influence on this dual structure in which there is almost no connection between the two stories taking place in the same location. The disconnection is further emphasized by the contrast between the theatrical acting style of Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret, who declaim their lines in a cryptic, detached fashion, and the naturalistic non-acting of the villagers whose speech is ordinary and accented. Again this was a deliberate strategy by Varda who directed the actors “not to act or express feeling” and “to say their dialogue as if they were reading it.”

The choice of La Pointe Courte as a setting for the film was no accident. During the war, Varda had spent a large part of her adolescence in the nearby town of Sète, and knew La Pointe Courte and its inhabitants well. Her portrayal of the villagers is unsentimental, yet sympathetic. Their resilience in the face of hardship, their humour and sense of community are the qualities that define them. The sophisticated city couple’s relationship difficulties appear ephemeral by contrast. As one local comments, “They talk too much to be happy.” This dichotomy between city and country, between the small town boy and the big city girl lies at the heart of the film. The boy identifies very strongly with this place where he was born and grew up, even if he is now half an outsider himself. The girl too, though alienated at first, appears to lighten up the longer she stays there. By connecting with his roots she has come to understand him more, even if their marital problems remain unresolved at the end of the movie.

What ultimately makes this such a distinctive film, beyond its unusual alternating narrative, is its stunning visual style. In the tradition of photographers like Atget and Cartier-Bresson, Varda manages to capture both the materiality of the setting and its unique underlying strangeness. Indeed, she seems less interested in telling a story as capturing a sense of place. From the opening scene as the camera drifts through the town like an invisible observer, probing into shadowy corners or drifting sideways through interior spaces we are drawn inexorably into this rich and mysterious world. There are frequent documentary-like shots of visual detail that have nothing to do with the narrative and everything to do with conveying an impression of locale. Even as the lead couple occupy the foreground, the village and surroundings are always in the background interacting with them and influencing them. Among the few who recognised the film’s achievement when it was released was André Bazin: “There is a total freedom to the style, which produces the impression, so rare in the cinema, that we are in the presence of a work that obeys only the dreams and desires of its auteur with no other external obligations.”

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