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.