By the Sea
Joanne Kouyoumjian on La Pointe Courte
In a 2008 interview, filmed on the occasion of the Criterion Collection release of her debut feature, La Pointe Courte, Agnès Varda described the process of coming up with the film’s concept and approach as being largely uninformed by cinema. She came to know the small fishing town of Sète in the south of France, and the film’s titular neighborhood within it, as a child, when her family fled there during World War II. Varda continued to visit and spend summer holidays in Sète and became familiar with the community over frequent trips. Through some ethnographic impulse, Varda would write down the “colorful expressions” of the fishermen, and witness the struggles as well as the joys of living under poverty. The film ultimately made from these observations evinces an understanding that she could only have gained over time, forged through experience rather than imagined from the confines of a dark writing room. The collective contributions and authenticity of the nonprofessional actors give La Pointe Courte its unique richness of place, granting the viewer the sense of really being there. The lack of an exoticized or patronizing gaze, in favor of a deeply embedded approach, reflects the profound and committed engagement Varda showed here, and through all of her films, to the texture of life.
Though Varda already was a highly experienced photographer and thus no stranger to the art of image-making, her lack of cinephile knowledge at this early period in her life helps make La Pointe Courte not only authentically personal but also singular; she says she was even unaware of the Italian neorealist films that preceded her and with which her first film shares certain approaches. As in works of neorealism, La Pointe Courte features mainly nonprofessional actors and a deep engagement with and attentiveness to a particular time and place that goes beyond the main narrative arc of the two main characters, played by the only professional performers in the film, Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret. Varda is often referred to as the “grandmother” or “mother” of the French New Wave; certainly her work predates that of the men most people recall first. However, and quite unlike many Nouvelle Vague films that proceeded and were inspired by Varda’s work, she did not rely on references to cinema or to cinematic language to create a formal or narrative texture. Filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut referenced, subverted, and played with American cinematic conventions. Varda instead drew from life, observation, and personal experience; getting to know people through the turns of phrase, the pace of daily life, and the experiences endemic to the neighborhood.
If there was an art work that most influenced La Pointe Courte, it was not a film, but a book: William Faulkner’s novel The Wild Palms [If Forget Thee, Jerusalem], which consists of two unconnected stories. Varda said to Positif in 1962, “The construction of the film was inspired by The Wild Palms. If you remember, there’s no connection in the novel between the couple, Charlotte and Henry, and the old ex-con from Mississippi. It was neither allegorical nor symbolic, just a feeling you get from reading which moves back and forth between these two stories. It’s up to the reader to be able to reorganize these feelings.” Borrowing from a literary work, not in order to draw upon a narrative, but rather to visualize the film’s structure and sequence, was and remains radical; her willingness to experiment without having a practiced awareness of formal and narrative conventions gives La Pointe Courte an immense feeling of possibility, and it became a hugely influential work on its own terms.
This dual narrative structure plays out between the tales of quotidian struggle amongst the neighborhood denizens of La Pointe Courte and the story of a couple on the verge of separation. The scenes with Monfort and Noiret wandering through the village, discussing their troubled past and potential future, are highly choreographed and stylized. The dialogue delivered by the tight-lipped, often expressionless actors seems to conceal emotional intensity, though Varda’s stark compositions of the couple, including dramatic profile shots, go a long way toward expressing much of those emotions. Visiting from Paris, the wife, only known as “Elle” (“She”), has come to discuss whether or not she and her husband, “Lui” (“Him”), a native of Sète, are still in love, and whether their relationship will continue. While the couple wanders through his hometown, exploring its boat yards, railroad tracks and jagged shorelines, they largely do not interact with the people of La Pointe Courte. In a sense, they are floating above its dramas, existing in a world apart. The film’s parallel narrative is composed in the opposite way. The camera moves among various dwellings, workshops, and streets, visiting not one family, but rather the entire neighborhood, which functions asa character unto itself. While the couple remains remote, emotionally unavailable to us, the inhabitants of the town become much more familiar and approachable to the viewer. The actors as dramatic personae remain unknowable, their conversation about love’s impermanence meant to be so common as to be generic, nonspecific, archetypal. The people of La Pointe Courte, on the other hand, are treated with more intimacy, in a reversal of the usual relationship between “main character” and “setting,” foreground and background; here, place matters deeply, as do the people who animate it.
Despite the fact that Varda was inspired by a literary rather than filmic work, La Pointe Courte is startlingly cinematic, relying wholly on the visual as a source of meaning. Its script is not “wordy,” even though some of its most beautiful scenes borrow colorful phrases and dialogue directly from the locals (in one, an older woman talks about her life, and exclaims that she has already “shit out half of it”). The film is deliberately composed, and Varda demonstrates early on her intentionality and control of the frame, even in somewhat ethnographic scenes that stage commonplace activities like hanging laundry or making fishing nets; these tasks unfold with the kind of attention and duration usually reserved for nonfiction. Varda’s experience with photography helps explain her preternatural command of mise-en-scène, but much of La Pointe Courte’s magnificence comes from Varda’s demonstrated gift for camera movement, following laboring hands as they craft a boat or bodies as they move between narrow alleys and streets. Whether capturing the silent, solitary depths of unimaginable sorrow over the death of a young child or the jubilation and pageantry of a public jousting festival, Varda knows how to dwell, hold on an image, and her camera always seems to be in just the right place. Varda asked Alain Resnais to help edit her first film, and he agreed after previewing the rushes, remarking on its unorthodox nature. The resulting film gives viewers a sense of emotional fullness; even though these events occur over only a few days, we feel the breadth of time, the sense of seasons, and the uncertainty of the future looming over everything.
Varda’s remarkable sixty-plus-year body of work would consistently dissolve boundaries between definitions of documentary and fiction, and La Pointe Courte is an early work that defies genre designation, anticipating by decades the contemporary infatuation for documentary-fiction hybrids. The approach is simple yet effective: what better way to speak about the environmental and economic pressures on fishing villages in the south of France than to stage interactions between the health officials of Montpellier and the fishermen struggling to hide their contraband mussels and shellfish, polluted by industrial or urban processes out of their control? How else to think about labor and time than to spend a few minutes with women as they wash and hang laundry while simultaneously looking after young children? Behind these scenes lie the same intellectual and philosophical questions asked by her contemporaries—what is the nature of intimate relationships, of temporality, of class and socialization, of gender and geography, the connection of history to the present—but asked by Varda with a particular sensitivity to experience. Throughout her career, Varda would continue to grapple with film form, in order to create new meanings from it; her attention to authentic lived experience would also always be central, but nowhere is it more striking than in her first experiment in film.