Agnes Varda became a modern-day cinema celebrity in the 21st century thanks to her immediately recognizable profile and modern incarnations of her work like Vague Visages. Because it’s true she never stopped creating, never ceased exploring this terrestrial sphere.
Watching something like La Pointe Courte (1955), one of her early efforts, one begins to imagine and reconfigure how the movie canon gets forged. Some of it has to do with accessibility (Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 seems to gain a resurgence in popularity by the year).
But whereas 400 Blows, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Breathless became the lodestars for an entire seismic shift in film, Varda is rarely considered in this dialogue. If at all, it’s in tandem with Alain Resnais or her husband Jacques Demy from the Left Bank who were contemporaries of The filmmakers from Cahiers du Cinema. But never is Varda mentioned as a predecessor or the initial pioneer of forthcoming movements and yet she shot a film with little money, passion, and a point of view.
Early on as we glide down the alleyway with the laundry swaying in the breeze I couldn’t help but think how Yasujiro Ozu would have photographed it so differently — stagnant and beautiful — still, Varda makes it feel graceful and alive.
She uses it as a way to get into the house. There’s a man loitering around on the corner, we see boats in the background, and then we’re past the very same laundry through the window into the home of a working-class family.
The stranger by the fig tree has the locals suspicious. They snatch a glance at him, suspecting he’s an inspector come to turn them in. Sure enough, health services show up to pay a house call.
This is a story of the steady degradation of a way of life. These men earn their livelihood through fishing. But with the local bodies of water increasingly polluted, the authorities are quick to come down on them. Young children are tasked with keeping watch and sounding the alarm so the men can rush back to shore and hide their spoils. But the antiquated ways of kids keeping watch don’t stand a chance against newfangled motorboats. Later a man is taken off to prison for such an infraction.
A movie like this looks deceptively simple and yet I’m able to pore over it with such relish. Look at the street, the shape of a tree, some bit of wood, or fishing equipment tossed on the ground. None of this can be fabricated on a green screen. This is a unique and real-world before us that we get to feel and experience in all of its immediate eccentricities.
The way a cat crawls through a hole in a wooden fence. Women crowd in the doorway to acknowledge the death of a child. A man skipping over the train tracks to greet his love. The reunited lovers walking along a stone wall or crouched in the enormous darkened hull of a boat.
Because La Pointe Courte also tells of a Parisian couple (Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret), who have returned to the husband’s childhood home. They have different philosophies. For him, it is simple but the lap of contentment. Just living is a pleasure. He can be satisfied here.
His ambitions lie with the intricate, extraordinary things — the kind of everyday visions that prove plentiful in Varda’s gaze, but his woman wants something else. She wants to travel — to see more than the humble alleyways of his small backwater town.
We might liken her to a connoisseur of Hollywood delicacies. Although they are not a pair of Hollywood faces and Varda’s camera finds them immeasurably interesting. She photographs and frames them in all manner of ways: profiles, from up above, side by side, and walking apart. It makes no difference. They are totally worthy of her close consideration.
I find it easy to reminisce about Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli another film that ties together the worlds of fishing and apathetic romance. There are even touches of Ingmar Bergman from the boating of My Summer with Monika and the visual melding of two human beings in Persona.
It also features water jousting a generation before Cesar et Rosalie. But one must once again acknowledge the imprint of Resnais — he helped edit the picture — and La Pointe Courte predates such seismic works as Hiroshima Mon Amour or The Last of Marienbad.
This is not an empirical observation but although both their films share momentarily visible sensibilities — how they glide through space — allowing lovers ample opportunity to quibble poetically if not totally inexplicable, Varda seems more invested in the world around them.
These are still real people to her with real problems, not merely the symbols or totems of countries and generations (ie. Nevers and Hiroshima). And so although Resnais’s characters share some intimacies, Varda’s picture is intimate in a different way, allowing for understanding outside the umbrella of romance alone.
She’s intent on humanity — a little boy licking his ice cream cone — in a way Resnais probably wouldn’t devote time to. The moment develops into something bitter and then sweet. He thinks his woman has left him and then she returns with two ice creams (economy size). He gives his cone to a small child. Rather than a mere act of charity or guilt, he’s probably lost any appetite.
The movie is this constant dance between signs of dissolution — these steps back and apart — and then steps forward leading them together again. It’s romance played out in the moments of conversation and indifference rather than any form of malicious Hollywood tirade.
It’s telling Varda ends her movie, not with her couple pontificating as they wade through a local dance party in the streets. For them, it’s practically a joyous occasion. However, she leads us back to a family as they get in their boat to ride off into the distant night. It never loses this level of familiarity in its humble origins. It relishes them even as it signals the inevitable dwindling of a way of life. Whether Varda recognized it or not, her film remains a presage for coming attractions.