A man in sunglasses lingers outside a shack. He’s a health inspector from the city and the man inside tells his son to tell his uncle. The boy’s uncle then tells his daughter to tell her grandfather. This is how word travels in Sète’s “la pointe courte,” a small, coastal community where big families still gather around a pot for every meal, where the men get sunburned hauling in fish and where the women tend to children and wash the clothes. But before you start thinking these old-fashioned people are simple-minded, they’ve coordinated to outsmart the inspector.
Released in 1955 — four years before François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and five before Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless — La Pointe Courte is considered one of the first French New Wave productions. Edited by Alain Resnais and directed by Agnès Varda, it exercises signature techniques of the movement. It was shot on location on the French coast, the cast is filled with non-actors and the script is energized by a mode of philosophizing that’s like nothing that came before it or since. Uniting the material with the intellectual, the new with the old and the silent with the spoken, Varda captures what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant when he spoke of “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time.”
Set in an isolated village, La Pointe Courte is a portrait of time and place that becomes quickly startling for the way it contains two films in one. Varda spits her attention between the local, seaside people — ordinary people whose lives are guided by material concerns regarding work and family — and two visitors from Paris; a married couple trying to decide whether or not to break up. Without short-changing either, Varda gives each side the significance it deserves.
The love story at the heart of La Pointe Courte is a conversation-driven dance between the husband and wife. The woman arrives by train from Paris and tells the man she wants to separate. The man says she’s tired and should rest. She says they’ve lost their passion. He says they belong together. The conversation stretches on and as they talk, they never stop moving. They pass through cluttered docks, fields of hay and the interior of an upturned boat, all the while in constant dialogue about the nature of their love. Characterized by precise choreography and close-ups, their restless movement reveals how romance isn’t just a matter of mental connection. It’s a literal movement of bodies in space, of two people continually figuring out the right way to fit together.
The married couple’s conversation is a spellbinding predecessor to Richard Linklater’s “Before Trilogy” and further proof that no great film needs “action” to be great. Their scenes together are the highlight of the film and their conversation is as riveting as it is irresolvable. The woman wants to break up because, “There are no more surprises.” The man listens and understands, but he’s unwilling to give up. He doesn’t want to live without her. In this way, the romance of La Pointe Courte is almost an anti-romance. Its love story is confrontational. Rather than following the trail of illusion that thousands of romantic leads have treaded before, the married couple of La Pointe Courte grapples with the hard realities of their love. The man had an affair. The woman has wondered what it would be like to be with other men. Is there a point to monogamy if the amorous parties aren’t always amorous?
The problems of the local people serve to both contextualize and critique the couple’s conversation. Unlike the man and woman, whose back-and-forth is in some ways a product of their privilege, the locals don’t have the leisure time to ruminate. They have health inspectors trying to break into their yards, coastal patrolmen riding by on motorboats and power lines that seem to be getting closer by the day. Beside the family values and work ethic of the locals, the couple’s issues seem trivial, even indulgent. Varda seems to want to remind viewers that no matter how pressing one’s problems might seem, someone else will always have it worse, or at least different. As W.H. Auden wrote of suffering, it always “takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window.”
In depicting a way of life to which she did not belong, Varda took a risk with La Pointe Courte. Her gaze as an outsider could have easily slipped into romanticization. In the hands of a less sophisticated director, the native’s home-cooked meals and manual labor surely would have been made to seem quaint or naïve. But Varda’s patience behind the camera affords her subjects the respect they deserve. Through the lives of the local people and the dialogue of the married couple, she holds society and its conventions under a sharp and illuminating light. When the local women laundering sheets smile at each other, they seem to know something we don’t. When the married couple hold hands and stare at the sky, they do too. The point is to look as closely as Varda herself, who watches every detail with curiosity, kindness and a relentless sense of wonder.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.