La Pointe Courte (1955): Agnes Varda’s Striking Feature Debut, Starring Philip Noiret

Agnes Varda made a most promising directing debut, at the young age of 25, with La Pointe Courte, a black-and-white drama that interweaves two stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Agnes Varda

The film has been cited by several critics and scholars as a forerunner of the French New Wave, whose official birth is considered to be in 1959.

Unlike most early New Wave features, the tale is not set in Paris, but in the South of France, at the Pointe Courte (“Short Point”), a quarter of a fisherman’s village.

A young man (played by the great French actor Philippe Noiret) arrives at a train station to see his wife (Silvia Monfort). After four years of marriage, the couple is going through a crisis.  The wife loves her husband, but is thinking of leaving him.  He had an affair in the past, but her problem is not just jealousy as whether there’s still genuine love between them.

After discussing their lives, problems and desires, they accept the fact that they belong together, even if the nature of their love might have changed.  They return to Paris, with the wife now more understanding of her husband’s personality after witnessing firsthand his hometown, and listening to his background.

The marital drama, which is well acted but not particularly original, unfolds against a wonderfully unique physical setting, a village populated by poor but proud people.  The fishermen make a modest living by harvesting shellfish from a small lagoon.  But they have been forbidden to use it now due to an some health issues, including bacteria.

Early on, when two inspectors are sent to the village to examine the situation, they are treated with suspicion and hatred by the local residents

In the course of the story, a small child dies of an unknown illness, and a young man wins the right to court the 16-year-old daughter of a neighbor, after proving himself in a local aquatic jousting tournament.

Varda visited La Pointe Courte to take photos for a friend who could no longer visit her home. However, after seeing the footage, she rented a camera to shoot a film about a couple from Paris who were visiting La Pointe Courte, the husband’s home town.

Thematically, in it concern with simple, ordinary folks, and visually, the film shows influences of Italian neo-realistic films of the 1940s by Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica.  While the village life is shot in an ultra-realistic style, the marital drama utilizes a more stylized treatment, relying on theatrical monologues, and close-ups.

Often framed in still positions, standing next to each other at the beach, sitting in a boat, or lying in bed (without touching), the couple delivers statements like, “our love is now based on knowledge, not passion,” the wife claiming, “our bonds are stronger than we are,” or the husband recalling how, “you stole my heart.”

The tension between the interior melodramatic story and the exterior setting is deliberate, calling attention to the specific ways in which the narrative is constructed by Varda, and then viewed by the spectators.

Varda had established her own co-op before she began principal photography of her film, whose low budget cost about $14,000.  No members of the cast or crew were paid during the shoot.

Alain Resnais, then a young director himself (the feature documentary “Night and Fog,” also in 1955), and soon to be one of the leaders of the New Wave (“Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” in 1959), is one of the film’s editors, alongside Henri Colpi.

Varda presents a vividly realistic portrait of a village trying to resolve its tough problems of economic survival at a high price.  But there are also scenes of communal joy, collective celebrations with music and dance.

In a stunning tableau, the males, separated from the females, are all dressed in white, sitting around the table and singing.  In the film’s very last image, an amateurish male band plays for the town.

World premiering at the Cannes Film Fest in May of 1955, La Pointe Courte was released theatrically in Paris in January 1956, as part of a double bill, which included Jean Vigo’s 1930 documentary, “A propos de Nice.”

Credits:

Written and directed by Agnes Varda

Music: Pierre Barbaud

Cinematography (black-and-white): Paul Soulignac, Louis Stein

Running time: 86 Minutes.

Postscript:

Agnes Varda died on March 29, at the age of 90.