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Vague Visages on Varda’s 88th: ‘La Pointe Courte’ (Agnès Varda, 1955)

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La Pointe Courte not only represents the directorial debut of Agnès Varda but the birth of the French New Wave. Among the earliest features of any of the filmmakers associated with either bank of the movement, the film represented a new kind of filmmaking that cast away the traditions of the past. Varda, who celebrates her 88th birthday today, May 30, has been challenging our idea of truth in the cinema for over 60 years, and La Pointe Courte is the beginning of that incredible journey. Set in a fisherman’s village in the south of France, an unnamed couple questions the nature of love and risk separating after four years of marriage.

How unusual to see a woman’s perspective on love presented so plainly as Varda does in La Pointe Courte. Released in 1955, the film is radical in its deconstruction of feminine desire and ennui. After four years of marriage, The Wife (Silvia Monfort) contemplates leaving her husband (Philippe Noiret). Not framed in Hollywood terms, the woman has no measurable reason for this change of heart except her own fledgling doubt over the idea of love itself. As love changes and time passes, does romance deepen into something else, or does it fade away? Does love enliven or dull your passion? Is romantic love a terrible anchor that drowns away our dreams?

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Setting this existential crisis against the backdrop of the small fishing village in the south of France, the mythical quality of love becomes exaggerated and denigrated. The setting exposes the strangeness of a relationship built on love rather than practicality, even suggesting a purity to the way things “used to be,” where love was forged out of a survivalist need rather than a leisurely one. Using documentary techniques that blur the line between reality and fiction to suggest a truth of experience, the film plainly rejects the trappings of a bourgeois lens. Rather, it suggests the nobility of the working class and the struggle of compromising within the modern world — in particular, the distant but imposing influence of the central government.

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With the sharpness of reality, amplified by non-actors, real locations and a roving camera, La Pointe Courte has a striking atmosphere. Drawing as much on the carefully recreated works of Robert Flaherty as the decadent romance of F.W. Murnau, Varda has a confident and sure voice even at this early stage of her career. The pastoral beauty, mixed in with the impositions of the contemporary world (a horizon lined with growing factories and electrical towers), evokes the pressures of a changing world. This hint of imposing modernity, though, only contributes a thematic edge of the contemporary, and the true heartbeat of the film’s radical energy lies in Alain Resnais’ editing. As he stitches together tracking shots that simulate the edge of a dream, or as he simulates emotional upheaval through fast cutting, Resnais communicates a greater departure from the past than anything else in the film. The editing mirrors the quickening thoughts of urbanization and connects the disparate tones of the real and unreal that Varda inspires. Rather than guiding the audience along, the fast cuts only amplify the inherent contradictions of ideas and thoughts bouncing against each other, creating a mindscape that feels truly contemporary.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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