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Jun 04 2015

Women's Pictures: Agnes Varda's La Pointe Courte

When Agnes Varda was honored at Cannes in May,a lot of titles were tossed around: Ancestor of the French New Wave,New Wave's Godmother/Mother/etc.But I began to wonder: how accurate are those titles?Can we safely lump Agnes Varda,photographer-cum-director-cum-documentarian,into the French New Wave boys club?After all,the New Wave conjurs very specific images: detached Frenchmen smoking cigarettes in black and white,long takes,jarring edits,staged closeups and jazz soundtracks.Does this mesh with our dimunitive director?

More seriously,the French New Wave represents a specific group of radical individuals.They were cinephiles and critics whose radical new ideas came from a love of film,and a conscious decision to reject classical cinema.Varda,by contrast,freely admits that she'd almost never seen a film before her 1955 debut,La Pointe Courte.So is she New Wave?Ur-New Wave?In parallel or in contrast?I don't have the answers yet,I just have a Hulu+ account and some books on French Film. It's going to be a hell of a month.

La Pointe Courteis an improbable film debut.Varda,as previously stated,had not seen many films before she decided to shoot a movie in the small seaside town of La Pointe Courte where she had recently been hired to take some photographs.She rented a camera,hired a handful of stage actors,recruited some townspeople,and set about making a film for only $14,000.The result is not one movie,but two: the story of two people drifting through a loveless marriage (influenced by Faulkner'sThe Wild Party),and a series of documentary-like day-in-the-life goings on in the fishing village.These two different plots are separated by style,tone,and pacing.Only location and the director's will knit them together.By all the conventional wisdom of the time,this experiment shouldn't work.But it does.

It works because Agnes Varda is the master of her camera.The two styles with which she experiments are unified by her unique sense of space and mis en scene.* Though the scenes between the loveless couple are shot with many of the stylized mannerisms I poked fun at before - closeups and monotone abound - Varda has a sense of how to use space and place to emphasize their discussions.Often,the two are shot against flat,shallow backgrounds or swallowed up by large,deep locations,which serve to give their frustrations a voice that they themselves lack.Similarly,though the day-in-the-life scenes from the village are shot in an easy documentary style,Varda knows how to frame scenes so that bits of the village - nets hanging in a shop or rope coiled on a pier - create geometric patterns that almost look staged.Varda frees the frame to move as well,making the audience an active observer as the handheld camera moves through the village,probing and looking into windows where no polite guest would venture in order to watch mourners at a young boy's funeral or a jovial boat joust.

*As a film student,I am obligated by contract to use this phrase at least once when discussing French New Wave.Thank you for your patience.

Agnes Varda is not a a conventional documentarian,nor isLa Pointe Courteentirely a New Wave film.it's difficult to giveLa Pointe Courtea specific genre,sitting 3 years before the "official"beginning of the New Wave,and seeing how it operates with motives distinct from its New Wave progeny.Apparently,nobody at the time knew what to do with her either,because Varda was given only documentary projects for the next few years.But her next fiction film was an experiment that would make her name,permanently.

This month on Women's Pictures...

6/11 -Cleo from 5 to 7(1962) - A seminal work of the French New Wave,Cleo from 5 to 7follows an entertainer in real time as she waits for her test results to determine whether she will die.(Hulu+)

6/18 -Le Bonheur(1965) - Varda's most provocative film tells the story of a married man's affair with a postal worker.(Hulu+)

6/25 -The Gleaners + I(2000) - Jumping forward in time and away in genre,this documentary was Varda's exploration of poverty in rural France.(Amazon Prime)

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Reader Comments (5)

In regards to your question about Varda's placement within the New Wave,she is typically considered part of the Left Bank group of filmmakers,which was a sort of sub-group that was seen as being more intellectual,literary and influenced by documentary filmmaking.But obviously the distinction is kind of nebulous.

June 4,2015 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

I wish the entirety of Kung-Fu Master was online.Ever since watching a retro You Tube clip from Siskel and Ebert about it,I've been curious to see it.

June 4,2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I wish the entirety of Kung-Fu Masterwereonline.Ever since watching a retro You Tube clip from Siskel and Ebert about it,I've been curious to see it.

June 4,2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

What a wonderful series this is.With Varda's special prize at Cannes and this,I hope more people become familiar with her work and hopefully she will gain more notoriety,especially in America.I had the great pleasure to see a Q/A with Varda a month or so ago at Lincoln Center and her devotion to documenting whatever is happening around her was not only inspiring,but made me realize how essential she is to the history of movies,regardless of how she's been lauded as such or not.I don't want to bring up the double standard card here,but I would take 1 Varda over 10 Godards.

June 4,2015 | Unregistered CommenterMr.Goodbar

Jonathan - I'd heard of Left Bank before,though not in connection with Varda.That distinction is helpful (though nebulous,I agree).

Mr.Goodbar - I'm glad that Varda seems recently to be getting the recognition she deserves.Her Cannes reception was nothing short of rapturous.

June 5,2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

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