The Cinematheque began it's Agnes Varda retrospective with a screening of her first film, La Pointe Courte
(1954), an important precursor to the French New Wave (another director who was a new wave precursor and contemporary, Alain Renais, was an editor on the film). La Pointe Courte
tells two intertwined stories: one is a fairly realistic story about the fishermen of the eponymous fishing village in the south of France, where they attempt to eke out a living. Because the local government is unsympathetic to their request to build a lagoon, the fishermen resort to harvesting tainted shellfish, inviting the scrutiny of the coastal patrol and the local health inspectors. There are two other subplots in this strand of the story: the little boy of a single woman with seven children suddenly dies, the other, the teenage daughter of a local fisherman is wooed by a young man in his 20s, to the consternation of her father. The sequences of the film are fairly "realistic," Varda employed the real-life inhabitants of Point Courte, as well as their homes (unfortunately, their performances are all fairly stilted). The other plot strand (the film alternates about every 10 minutes, Varda attributed this narrative technique to Faulkner's Wild Palms
) involve an unnamed Man and Woman, he was a local man who moved to Paris, she a Parisian; they are visting his home town to reconcile their marriage, which is in tatters, mired in alienation. The couple wander through the environs of Point Courte, engaging in what I like to call "art movie monologues" about love and their relationships (at one point, a local woman, a hostel owner, tells her husband "They don't love each other, they talk to much."); these scenes are much more stylized, and the man and woman are played by professional actors, Philippe Noiret and Silvia Montfort. Slowly, we learn the reason for their alienation, both are plagued by doubt, and he had an affair in Paris. They reconcile, but he is uneasy when she disappears for a few moments at a local festival. All she did was buy ice cream, but all he can think of is that she will leave him eventually.
While the film is an interesting first effort, it's main strengths are it's photography, betraying Varda's former vocation. The images of this film are among the most tactile and sensual I've ever seen (the print was exquisite; crisp, luminous B & W), her use of light and dark, the sharp focus, the sheer attention to texture. The film begins with a shot of a block of wood, as the credits fade in and out, the audience is almost forced to admire the whorls of the wood grain. This is one of many instances, where Varda focuses her camera on some object with a distinct texture, the wet sand of a beach, the shiny satin sheets of a bed, the oily eel slithering down a chute, a pool of brackish water covered in palpably slimy algae. She also has an eye for the the everyday working environment of the fishing village, the tangle of nets, blocks and tackle, and rickety, wooden rowboats; the decaying brick buildings full of dirt, screaming children, and cats (there are cats all over the village), and the sandy dunes and sparse grass of the beach with the industrial plants in the background. Not only could I "feel" what it was like in Pointe Courte, I could almost smell it, the salt, the smell of dead fish, and sea weed. The photography and Varda's feeling for the environment that the characters inhabit. I'm really looking for to Cleo de 5 a 7
(unfortunately, I will be unable to attend the seminar with Agnes Varda herself, which will be held in Madison on Oct 4-5; I will most likely be out of town).