emotional spaces via physical places

At first glance Agnès Varda’s La pointe courte (France, 1954) seems much more an Italian film than a French one, for if the acute observations of the villagers of the small, traditional Mediterranean fishing town seems deeply indebted to Italian neo-realism, then the alternating story and scenes with the conflicted married couple seems to anticipate with uncanny accuracy the films Antonioni would begin making in the succeeding several years (Il Grido in particular springs to mind). But it’s not an Italian film and furthermore Varda, merely (gulp) 25 at the time, claims to have not seen more than that number of films at that point in her life. Without that bit of information La pointe courte is a rather remarkable film; taking its backstory into account, it’s simply phenomenal.

Probably more than anything La pointe courte a film about spaces and place, and not just in the obvious picturesque sense of setting, but analyzing spaces on a number of levels, whether they be public or private, female-dominated (the home, the laundry lines) or male-dominated (the fishing boats traversing the wide expanses of water), or even in the way the rigid narrative structure sharply demarcates the scenes of village life and the couple’s solitary wanderings. But Varda isn’t content with simply letting these perimeters well enough alone; if anything, the bleeding together of disparate spheres of activity provide the impetus for the film as boundaries as subtly criss-crossed. A good example, and probably my favorite sequence in the film, takes place at the shared laundry lines where Varda’s camera lingers on the crisp, white sheets and shirts that billow sensuously in the wind as two local women cheerfully wrestle their washing from the lines—a brief, beautiful snapshot of friendship and female camaraderie that is interrupted by a solitary man walking through and disappearing (as such, it serves as introduction to the couple’s story in the film).  This is mirrored and inverted later when the same woman (who strongly resembles my Portuguese great grandmother) interrupts the “boys club” post-joute dinner party to kick off the community-wide dance.

The alternating sequences revolving around the couple, played by Silvia Monforet and Phillippe Noiret (who I didn’t even recognize—he’s the old man in Cinema Paradiso), deal with similar issues, but goes about doing it in a more abstract way. Actually, it’s mostly delineated via Varda’s camera where she displays a preoccupation with the distances that separate her two subjects. When not carefully divided by the mise-en-scene

the faces and the profiles of the couple are often shot merged

making the physical and very visual separations between them all the more potent, even painful, a visual rendering of the emotional spaces being explored.

If I started out by saying that La Pointe Court seems like an Italian film, well, it was her fellow French who took the film to mind and heart (in the Criterion interview Varda recounts how only one small theater in Montparnasse would bother showing the film, and all the Paris intelligentsia—from the young New Wavers to the literary elite—flocked to and rallied around it). Surprisingly or unsurprisingly Alain Resnais served as the editor of the film, and a lot of the elements Varda introduces—ranging from the monotone intensity of the couple’s conversations to the preoccupation with memory and place—later shows up in his mature work, most particularly Hiroshima mon amour (Varda also specifically names Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima’s screenwriter, as one face to be seen among the Montparnasse audiences). If Varda had never made another film (or had chosen to stick to photography, her original love) La pointe courte would be enough to seal her reputation as an important cinematic artist, happily, it was just the beginning of a remarkable, still underappreciated career that stretches to this very day.

[Screen captures taken by Jesse Ataide.  Others are welcome to use the images, but please provide a link back!]

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illicit love: part two

 As I mentioned in last week’s thread, Jdidaco’s thoughts on Vendredi Soir (Friday Night) (Claire Denis, France, 2002) made me want to go home after work and cuddle up with the film—and that’s exactly what I did, staying up half of the night to do so.  It’s a particular favorite of mine—always floating somewhere just outside of my top ten—but it had been several years since I’d last seen it.  It’s always a bit unnerving revisiting a favorite as there’s the risk that the previous magic has disappeared, but I’m happy to report I still think it is just as wonderful as ever, and even threw me a few surprises along the way (the story is told in a linear, relatively straightforward manner, but the way Denis often moves to the next sequence can be rather bewildering—one feels unmoored, dislodged from linear time for a few moments until we are given a few visual clues and things settles down again).

What’s so special about the film is in the way the central midnight encounter feels so spontaneous and yet so inevitable, and Claire Denis is a magician of sorts in the way she captures each moment as it unfolds—it’s at once both vibrantly real and as intangible as a hallucination.  Once while discussing this film Ali invoked Queen Christina’s room and I had that in the back of my head throughout the entire film, but it struck me that idea doesn’t just apply literally to the shadowy, probably shabby hotel room itself; rather, the entire night is Christina’s room, with the gaze Denis and Agnés Godard’s camera lingering on images in the way that mimics the way the human mind processes information, i.e. a bit longer than what is necessary to establish ones placement in space, but not long enough where one is actively observing—it’s just that extra split second where the mind takes a mental snapshot and a memory begins to form.  Combine all this with Denis and Godard’s virtually unparalleled ability in capturing a kind of radiance in even the most mundane of objects—human skin, a red blanket, a dusty dashboard, hell, even a condom dispenser—and you have one of the most alive films I’ve ever encountered.  And as a bonus, it’s all so soft, almost amorphous that each time I return it feels like I’m witnessing it for the first time all over again…  For my money, one of THE great achievements of modern cinema.

Memories of a Movie:

illicit love: part one

I was taken completely by surprise in the way that I responded to Les amants (The Lovers) (Louis Malle, France, 1958), simply because I can’t remember the last time it happened: I had a genuine moral response to the actions of Jeanne Moreau’s character (who, rather confusingly, is also named Jeanne). As she kissed and gently rearranged the sheets over her sleeping daughter before being led to bed by her latest boytoy, I was shocked to find myself outraged that the film was asking the audience to so blithely support Jeanne’s decision to walk away from her parental responsibilities.

Only in retrospect did my opinion take on more nuance: finally it dawned on me how I occupy a very different historical moment, the child of the ideology behind a film like Claire Denis’s Vendredi Soir, where of course a night of blissful sexual satisfaction can be had and savored and guiltlessly walked away from, aware it will serve as a particularly vibrant memory to help get through the more mundane patches of the everyday life that must necessarily be returned to.  It was only then that the ramifications of Jeanne’s actions come painfully into focus, namely the truly great sacrifice and risk involved in her sexual decisions, all the more acute given her (and the film’s) obvious awareness that the new life she embarks on could very well turn out to be as dull and stifling as the one she is so desperately fleeing from.

This reality serves to rupture the glassy, impeccable sheen of Malle’s shimmery black and white visuals, which for the first half of the film I was afraid was going to turn out as aesthetically impressive but emotionally cold as L’Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows).  With one overwhelming exception: the several minutes spent on the carnival ride—has emotional and sexual euphoria ever been so economically but buoyantly depicted? It seems so obvious, but watching it it’s one of those stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks sequences stumbled upon only once in a great while. Ultimately, I walked away impressed and more than a bit piqued—multiple viewings seem in order to dissect the onion-like layers lurking beneath this seemingly simplistic story…

Memories of a movie…