The 1960s saw the emergence of one of the most influential and fondly remembered ‘New Waves’ of cinema, that of the French. It was a movement largely led by film critics; usually those in the employ of the famous French journal “Cahiers du cinéma”. Most film fans already know the major names: Jean-luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol etc. Amidst all the men, one name can’t help but stand out, that of Agnès Varda. She would form a part of the movement, her 1962 film Cléo de 5 à 7 (aka Cleo from 5 to 7) remaining one of its absolute gems, but she seemed more comfortably allied with its more literary and experimental offshoot, the Rive Gauche (Left Bank); allying her with such names as Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Chris Marker. All of this is to say, before these titles and theories there stood La Pointe-Courte. With this debut, a marvel of experimental independent cinema, Varda made not just a precursor to these later movements but also a bridge to larger movements within European cinema; to Ingmar Bergman and the Italian Neo-Realists.
It’s quite remarkable to imagine Varda’s process in making La Pointe-Courte. She herself acknowledges that she wasn’t really a cinephile and that she certainly knew nothing about film production although, to her credit, photography was her chosen métier. Nonetheless, an idea came to her that suited the medium and she took it upon herself to get it made. Pointing heavily towards the interests of the later Rive Gauche, the inspiration for this film came not from cinema but from literature, specifically Faulkner’s The Wild Palms1. As theorists such as Robbe-Grillet and Maguerite Duras sought to redefine focus within the novel, downgrading narrative to focus on the individual experience, so the cinema of the Rive Gauche sought to remove focus on traditional storytelling mechanics and instead focus on the internal, the subjective, made tangible through visual evocation.
Faulkner’s novel alternates, chapter by chapter, between two entirely disparate tales, one of a couple’s passionate affair and the other of an escaped convict’s relationship with a woman he rescues from a flood. This twinning of separate stories achieves an effect of superimposition between the two, with each narrative reframing the other through a sort of, as Varda puts it, process of osmosis. Transposing the same structure into a film the result is two separate narratives both set in the remote fishing community of la Pointe-Courte in Sète, the location where Varda and her family found shelter when France fell to the Nazis.
The first tale seems entirely in tune with the Italian Neo-Realist movement that had won over hearts all around the world in the post-war years. We follow the various residents of la Pointe-Courte, seemingly comprised entirely of fishermen, their wives and their children. The narrative threads in this portion concern: an ongoing dispute between the fishermen and the government regarding their right, and the safety, of fishing in a nearby lagoon, the death of a young boy due to illness, and the hard-won right of two young lovers to date. Shot in natural tones and obviously utilising local talent for the roles, these segments breathe with an easy life capturing the dealings of a remote community where daily life is still one of hard physical toil.
Interspersed with this is a separate tale, overlapping geographically and temporally (unlike Faulkner’s tales), depicting the potential dissolution of a romantic relationship between two lovers; one a resident of la Pointe-Courte who travelled to Paris and the other a Parisian woman, unused to the locale. These segments offer a complete shift in tone from the realist exploits of the fisherman. We find here cryptic, stilted dialogue as the two discuss the nature of their love in an affected monotone, analysing its weaknesses and their own expectations of where it might lead. Shot composition also becomes more formal with the easy moving camera of the fishermen becoming ever more geometrically attuned, producing often striking visuals which presage the work of Bergman throughout the 1960s, particularly the famous facial alignments of Persona.
La Pointe-Courte is then, as goes the old football cliché, a game of two halves and it’s difficult to decide where to start when discussing it. The film’s bizarre production would seem as good a place as any. As mentioned above, Varda really had no experience in the field. Her own enthusiasm seemed qualification enough for proceeding with the endeavour. Having written the script she then decided on a budget of ten million francs, a pittance even compared to the stripped down budgets that would typify the French New Wave’s product. She raised about half of that through an inheritance and some other investments while the rest was raised as what she termed ‘sweat equity’2. That is to say, the cast and crew largely forfeited their wages with the promise of reimbursement at a later date. They were not investing in a film so much as a co-operative. A risky manoeuvre as it turned out with Varda stating in an interview nearly a decade later3 that only about 75% of the funds had been recouped at that stage.
No doubt the film’s inadequate distribution played a large role in that shortfall. The bulk of the cast is non-professional while the couple at the centre were only just embarking on their careers in cinema. Noiret would of course go on to become one of the great faces of his nation’s cinema although, and he has a point, he felt he was too young to convincingly occupy this early role. Perhaps the biggest credit on the cast list is that of Alain Resnais as editor. Taking the job upon being convinced of Varda’s dedication to the task, the film effectively presages much of the highly formal and experimental work he himself would become known for, starting just a few years later with his feature debut, the magnificent Hiroshima mon amour.
Saying the film is a masterpiece would be a mistake. In a sense, it’s much more interesting than that. If cinema were a map than La Pointe-Courte would be a crossroads in the centre of European cinema; a linking point between post-war realist movements and the more avant-garde, stridently intellectual cinema that typified the art-house fare of the 1960s. Indeed it goes further than that, the cats that fill the corners of so many frames and the rough, rural location effectively harks back to earlier French gems such as the poetic-realism of Vigo’s L’Atalante4 and Renoir’s Toni, the latter a remarkable predecessor to the Italian school. It’s perhaps a surprise then that Varda herself says she had not seen any Italian Neo-Realist cinema before embarking on this project. Her admitted lack of interest in the medium up until that point would seem to back her up but it’s quite remarkable how accurately she evokes the spirit of the era both in the general and the specific.
The social drama and setting among fishermen immediately bring Visconti’s La terra trema to mind whilst the second story, of a couple’s relationship framed through location, similarly hints to Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (aka Journey to Italy)5. Aside from these specific references it’s largely the spirit of the developing Antonioni that hangs heaviest here even though he and Varda were largely developing in tandem rather than succession. The often strangely geometric arrangement of the rural landscape into the lens’ frame as the couple embark on their various strolls and, to a degree, the turmoil such basic actions hold, make La Pointe-Courte a perfect partner with Il Grido; Varda’s film suggesting the routes Antonioni and other Italian directors would later follow to escape the limitations of the movement that had previously been so good to them.
Having fawned at such length over the film’s context now might be a good time to delve into its actual content. There’s much to appreciate here, as has been outlined before, but perhaps it’s easiest to say that Varda’s film works best as experiment rather than as a standalone effort. Though the intent is noble, Faulkner’s mechanics don’t gel quite so perfectly here and the film’s dichotomous narrative seems indulgently intellectual rather than illuminating even as it helps open up the dialectic between documentary and fiction which would preoccupy much of the Nouvelle Vague’s cinema6. This is not to criticise the film for its stridently high-brow origins and scope but rather to acknowledge that La Pointe-Courte is dogged by a certain self consciousness. The portentous dialogues about internal anguish and socially maladjusted expectations find voice in artfully composed visual tableaux that provide an obviously measured counterpoint to the more naturalistic flow of images capturing the locals. Perhaps it’s this diffusion of intensity, the film trying to unfold through two separate modes, which undermines some of its effect. The ponderous shifts in tone can’t help but draw attention to themselves and while one might obviously cite Brecht when discussing such a display it doesn’t seem to make the film any more enlightening as a production.
It’s the realist passages—depicting the death of a child, his siblings standing uncertain in the front room while their mother mourns in the rear—that truly move. The couple’s dilemmas seem almost childish in comparison and while the two narratives eventually share common space as the whole town attends a river-jousting tournament one can’t help but be struck by how much the theory outweighs the final product. If highlighting the superficiality of the couple is part of the intent in twinning it with the unassuming lives of the fishermen than it seems problematic that the latter largely undercuts, rather than accents, the former. Capturing the rawness, the immediacy of these lives lived by the sea Varda’s camera opens with long takes that bring us from sunny exterior to shady interior, from tourist to resident.
Although the entire film, for budgetary reasons, makes use of post-dubbed sound (something that further aligns it with the Italians) there’s a touching honesty to all that’s portrayed here. Varda openly acknowledges that she used phrases she overheard from the residents themselves to help make the banter more authentic. In comparison the scenes with the couple, more experimental visually and aurally, don’t benefit as much from the director’s forays into style. They seem uncertain of their intent, unbalanced as we shift from often less ornamented linking shots to specific, highly composed frames, often in close-up. The deliberately artificial line delivery and unusual lack of perspective in the film’s soundscape (and often complete omission of certain sounds) further separate it from the tale of the fishermen. It seems to coast on vague ideas while lacking any unifying thrust.
Nonetheless, criticising the basic elements of Varda’s film somehow seems trivial. It is a marker in European cinema and a forerunner of some of the greatest works the medium has ever produced. That it is self-conscious, indulgent and formal to a fault merely mark it out as a rough sketch for the landscape other directors would more clearly detail in the following years. As an exercise in production La Pointe-Courte is every bit as audacious as anything the Nouvelle Vague would manage and in its own excesses it can’t help but prove fascinating; perhaps more so for the discussions it provokes than for the act of watching the film itself. In that sense Brecht might indeed be proud. It was largely buried in its initial run, distributed to only a handful of cinemas throughout France, but looking back now it is remarkable in its foresight and its artistic significance. As the Italians sought escape from the inadvertent trap of post-war realism and the French sought revolution against what Truffaut termed the ‘Tradition of Quality’, Varda, seemingly on her own and entirely self-realised, unearthed that very thing.
1 More modern editions carry the title, “The Wild Palms (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem)”, which reinstates Faulkner’s original preference for the title without removing the established name.
2 Such is the phrase subtitled in interviews included with Criterion’s U.S. release of the film.
3 An interview aired in 1964 from the television series, Cinéastes de notre temps, also included on Criterion’s release.
4 Further finding footing with Vigo, during its initial theatrical run La Pointe-Courte was paired with that director’s delightfully effervescent travelogue, À propos de Nice.
5 Admittedly at this point Rossellini himself was beginning to break and change the dynamics of Italian cinema too, a task he seemed more comfortable with than many of his contemporaries with perhaps the exception of Visconti. Accompanying him on the path would be a host of directors, Antonioni, Fellini, Leone etc., who mostly worked as writers during the Neo-Realist movement.
6 Documentarian and anthropologist Jean Rouch was of major significance to the likes of Godard and Truffaut and he even contributed some work directly to the movement such as a segment in the Nouvelle Vague compendium film, Paris vu par… (aka Six in Paris). His ethnographic approach to cinema finds plenty of overlap with Varda’s portrayal of the fishermen.