Agnes Varda is the next director that I want to cover in my French New Wave series. I could have done other directors before her, but I personally like her more than I like Chabrol, Resnais, or any of the other directors. For me I am writing in order of my fascination with them. Of course Godard and Truffaut should be the first two that anybody talks about when talking about the French New Wave, but after them it is a crap shoot. Agnes Varda represents for me an example of the refreshing aspects of the French New Wave. Mixing documentary realism with existential questions, her films focus not just on privileged people but also on the real problems that faced the French poor during the time of the films. You will see this all the way through her films from La Pointe Courte to The Gleaners and I and beyond. Alive and well, Agnes Varda still produces work that is highly original today. A veritable feminist badass, Varda represents the only woman director able to have the distinction of being a part of the French New Wave.
La Pointe Courte was the first film she ever made. Conceived when she was 25 and about five years before the blockbusters, Breathless and The 400 Blows, La Point Courte juxtaposes a couple’s troubles with that of a small fishing village. Although at times the fishing village’s problems seems to be more pressing, Varda gives the more private problem of a relationship falling apart just as much weight. Employing non actors for the fishermen’s parts and shooting in only natural light with a small camera, the film feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction.
What is interesting here is not necessarily what is being said, but how it is being said. Varda amped up the sound so you never hear the couple get softer as they are pulling away from the camera. The music is played in elliptical sound bites and are samples from the folk songs that the sailors play at the climax of the film. All of this doesn’t seem revolutionary, but in reality it is. She plays with your sense of hearing in ways that was unheard of at the time. As you hear the couple say very unemotionally that they don’t love each other anymore, you hear the blast of the clarinet from the folk song. The clarinet gives the lines an emotion that is not felt from their voice alone. What this couple is experiencing is dramatic for their relationship, but is not dramatic for the rest of the world they are living in. The fishermen are more concerned with evading the law, forcing the Board of Health to see it their way, and putting food on the table. But to the couple this means nothing to them. They see the decay of the village, the need for more money and resources but they are so wrapped up in their relationship problems that they care nothing about it. The problems of the private life are separate from the problems of the social life. This is what Varda aims to illustrate here.
La Pointe Courte is a fascinating sketch of a way of life that is not usually seen in films. You could say that the Italian neo realism portrayed people who are similar, but I would have to disagree. While in Italian neo realist films, the subjects are usually tragic creatures who are continually crushed by the system, in this film although they are being crushed by the government, the fishermen still find a way to lead a full and engaging life that includes water jousting, eating good food, and dancing the night away. Although as one character says “dancing does not alleviate the problems, it just makes it more tolerable.”
Just like the villagers, the couple’s problems are not solved and yet you can tell that by just talking them through it has made the problems more tolerable.