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La Pointe Courte

Agnès Varda wasn't much of a moviegoer before she started making movies. That helps explain the amazing originality of her debut film, La Pointe Courte, which premiered at Cannes in 1955 and then dropped out of sight for many years, overshadowed by flashier French productions like François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960), not to mention Varda's masterpiece Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), the follow-up feature that made her internationally famous.

Those films are rightly celebrated for their energy, spontaneity, and earthiness, but Varda's first picture set the pattern for a great many of the innovations that cascaded out of France throughout the 1960s and beyond. Made on a miniscule budget by a twenty-something woman who'd been earning her living as a still photographer, La Pointe Courte is now hailed as a foundational work of modern cinema. And it's still a joy to behold, pulsing with vibrant sights and sounds from start to finish.

Named after the district where it takes place, La Pointe Courte tells two stories connected only by their location - a small fishing community in Sète, a Mediterranean city tucked into France's southeast corner. One story chronicles the loosely strung experiences of local citizens as they ply their demanding trade, run their modest households, and grapple with bureaucrats who make up rules that can be hard for business. The other story centers on a young Parisian couple, known only as Him and Her, coping with a crisis in their marriage. He grew up in La Pointe Courte and still loves the place, while she was raised in Paris and has cosmopolitan tastes. Together they visit the man's old neighborhood, working through their differences in quiet, meandering conversations.

The movie's drama hinges on small but important questions. Will the father let his daughter marry the man she loves, even if he's kind of a wimp? Will the cops arrest the guy who harvested his shellfish from an off-limits stretch of water? Will the big-city couple stay together or split up? The climax coincides with the water-jousting tournament that actually happens in Sète each year, a sort of slow-motion skirmish where men knock each other off boats with medieval-style lances while onlookers cheer their favorites.

Varda directed the two parallel stories of La Pointe Courte in notably different styles. The scenes centering on the fishing families have a strong flavor of Italian neorealist cinema, which was a powerful influence on the Left Bank Group filmmakers of the 1950s and '60s - including Varda, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Henri Colpi - as well as the New Wave movement formed by Godard, Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, and their colleagues. The fishing people are played by nonprofessionals - regular people just like the characters they portray - and the inquisitive camera records each face, expression, and gesture in meticulous detail, not in a fussy way but with the loving care of an attentive friend who wants to absorb and appreciate everything in sight.

By contrast, the city folks are played by professional actors: Silvia Monfort had worked with Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau, and Philippe Noiret who would soon become a major movie star. Their scenes are presented in formal, precisely calculated compositions, and the soundtrack follows similar rules, playing the reserved, almost poetic intonations of the visitors against the casualness of village speech. Some critics have complained about the apparent stiffness and artificiality of the Him and Her episodes, but Varda had good reasons for using two different styles, which embody her view that there is a wide gap between public life, represented by the village, and private life, represented by the husband and wife.

Ricocheting between these modes, Varda underscores the subtle differences between the lifestyles and mindsets on display in the film. The divergent styles also prevent the polished performances by Monfort and Noiret from making the locals seem comparatively crude or amateurish, and they keep the poised professional actors from overshadowing the unvarnished reality of the environment. Most important, the alternation between formality and informality conveys a core message of the film - that the casualness of the villagers and the correctness of the visitors are equally valid ways of living in the world, just as their different kinds of speech are equally poetic in the essential humanity they express.

Varda credited some of her techniques here to the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who felt that instead of just appealing to the emotions, a movie or play should open up a critical distance between the story and the audience, interrupting the show to encourage thought, reasoning, and reflection. She was also helped by brilliant contributions from composer Pierre Barbaud, whose spiky music is an ideal counterpoint for various scenes, and Resnais, an experienced film editor and short-film director who would start his own feature career with the towering Hiroshima mon amour (1959) four years later.

La Pointe Courte is as moving and entertaining as it is intelligent and audacious. Varda was intimately acquainted with the neighborhood, where she and her parents lived when World War II forced them into hiding. Her collective portrait of the community is always dynamic and sometimes hilarious, and you can't help loving a place where a fisherman who broke the regulations gets to turn himself in to the police on his own schedule, and then gets a leave of absence from the jailhouse during the water-jousting festival. Life is far from perfect in the neighborhood, as the death of a sick child poignantly reminds us, but the resilience and good spirits of the denizens are unstoppable.

It's sadly ironic that this paradigm-changing movie, years ahead of its time in style and substance, didn't instantly launch Varda as a world-class filmmaker. The only opportunities that came her way in the next few years were offers to direct documentary shorts, which she enjoyed but saw as the second-tier projects they were. Her greatness was finally recognized when Cleo from 5 to 7 became an international success, and in her subsequent career - from the daring Le Bonheur (1965) and Vagabond (1985) through such later treasures as The Gleaners & I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008) - she has glided between fiction and documentary with consummate grace, often erasing the boundaries between those arbitrary categories. La Pointe Courte set the standard for her artistry in that way too.

Varda has always made films that engage and entertain the viewer while requiring active thought from us as well. La Pointe Courte is a glowing example of her skill at establishing a particular kind of relationship with the audience. She stated this eloquently in one of my many conversations with her. "I see a film as a dialogue and an art object," she told me in a 1977 interview, "but not as a lecture. My films don't get passive audiences. I don't want people to watch my film as if they were putting on my gloves, still warm from my hands. I want them to have an opinion while watching, not be carried along by a sentimental story." Precisely. And to have a wonderful, memorable time in the process.

Director: Agnès Varda
Screenplay: Agnès Varda and the Inhabitants of La Pointe Courte
Camera: Louis Stein, Paul Soulignac, Louis Soulanes, Bernard Grasberg
Film Editing: Alain Resnais, Anne Sarraute
Artistic Adviser: Valentine Schlegel Music: Pierre Barbaud
With: Philippe Noiret (Him), Silvia Monfort (Her)
BW-86m.

by David Sterritt

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