In the distant past of April 2020, Chris and I dove deep into an episode of our podcast Cinema Dual on the films of French filmmaker Agnès Varda. Though technically not my first experience with Varda, that week of watching Varda’s movies was eye-opening, to such an extent that when Criterion announced they were going to release a Blu Ray box set of her complete filmography, I jumped at the chance to catch up on everything I had missed. Each post will cover 1 of the 15 discs in the set.
When Agnès Varda is referred to as the “Mother of French New Wave” it doesn’t come from her association with filmmakers like Jean Luc Godard and François Truffaut; it’s more from the realization that some of the filmmaking techniques they were “innovating” could already be found in Varda’s work. In contrast to her contemporaries, Varda moved into filmmaking from her career as a photographer, and because of interest and circumstance more or less learned on the job. Fortunately those compositional skills gave her a head start on establishing a voice in the medium from the beginning.
Speaking of which, La Pointe Courte (1954) does not feel tentative in the ways you might expect someone’s first movie to feel. Inspired by the twin narrative structure of William Faulkner’s novel The Wild Palms, the film follows two narrative threads whose only real connection is a shared location: a fishing village in Sète, France. The camera weaves through the streets of the community as the film starts, and we’re introduced to the first of our major threads, the fishing community’s struggle to survive against the threats of the local health inspector. In the midst of this struggle, a young married couple reunite and immediately start to argue about the state of their marriage, and of love more generally.
The two halves of the film are shot quite differently. For the couple, Varda used professional actors Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret, and directed them to act very emotionally muted. This section features the most composed images, and the combination of the two makes for an almost surreal quality, allowing this struggling couple to exist entirely in their own little bubble.
By contrast, the rest of the film dealing with the community’s struggles are filmed in a more naturalistic, almost documentary like style. Non-acting residents from the community were asked to act, and their Varda created their dialog from bits of conversation she’d hear them having during her time in Sète. While still fictional I believe for the most part, Varda attempts to re-create something that approximates reality.
Varda has been clear that in her mind the two threads of the movie are separate. And yet, placed in interlocking sequences, the experience can be jarring, and I think it’s worth interrogating this juxtaposition. Do we criticize the couple for being so caught up in their own affairs that they can’t be bothered to inquire about the people around them, especially when one of the neighborhood kid dies? Do we assume that everyone of the villagers in the community has their own isolated narrative that could fit a half-movie of its own, but this is the one we get to see? How do people’s private lives get assembled and built into the life of a whole community?
Speaking of community, it’s definitely worth noting Varda’s own history with Sète. Her mom was originally from the town, and when her family fled Belgium in World War II, they returned for a time to live there. This film originally began as a project of hers to film some footage of the town for a sick friend who couldn’t visit. Even the light criticism with the revelation that the health inspector’s threats may be coming from an actual, if ignored danger to the community, Varda’s tribute to the people of Sète seems genuine.
Skipping ahead a couple of years, someone at the Office National Du Tourisme must have picked up on that affection, because they commissioned Agnès to produce a couple of short promotional films for the Loire Valley and later the French Riviera. These would become Ô saisons, ô châteaux and Du côté de la côte (both 1958) respectively. The natural and man-made beauty of these areas should make for easy selling points, but Agnès doesn’t miss a chance to set up interesting compositions, or include playful voiceovers. Histories are interspersed with some poetry; huge castles are introduced via gardeners raking fall leaves. There’s a visually striking thread in Ô saisons, ô châteaux, where she brings in various models in contemporary fashions to approximate the noblewomen that originally inhabited these fortresses.
She also notes in Du côté de la côte that the best views of the Riviera are locked behind the gates of private property, and comments how “this fake Eden is not for us, no more than the real Eden.” I defy you to find any other tourism video with something like that counterproductive.
Over this series, we’ll see how Varda grows and develops in relation to ideas, technology and more. She doesn’t strike me as being inflexible. That being said, out of the gate, she does has a particular vision, one that is very mindful of her surroundings.
Next time: Around Paris