La Pointe Courte [DVD]
Director : Agnès Varda
Screenplay : Agnès Varda
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1954
Stars : Silvia Monfort (Her), Philippe Noiret (Him)
Although the record has since been set straight, Agnès Varda’s significant contributions to the creation of the film movement that would come to be known as the French New Wave weren’t immediately recognized. Perhaps it was because she wasn’t a contributor to Cahiers du cinéma. Perhaps it was because, like Jean-Pierre Melville, another early predecessor of the movement, she worked largely in the margins of the French film industry at the beginning of her career. Or perhaps it was because she was a woman and the French New Wave is an otherwise decidedly masculine affair behind the camera. But, for whatever reason, Varda’s contributions were long unnoticed, evidenced by the fact that she is briefly mentioned only twice in the entirety of James Monaco’s 1976 book The New Wave, the first substantial academic treatment of the movement.
Looking back at it now, most scholars recognize with 20/20 hindsight that Varda’s first feature film La Point Courte is a quintessential forerunner to most of the visual and thematic preoccupations of the French New Wave: location photography, mixing of professional and nonprofessional actors, conventional cinematic rule-breaking such as having a character address the camera directly, and an obsession with the characters’ inner lives, which finds an outlet in lengthy monologues and philosophical discussions. Shot in austere black and white in La Pointe Courte, a seaside fishing village adjacent to Sète (where, not incidentally, Varda grew up), the film has a raw, immediate quality that puts it in stark contrast to the kinds of “quality” films that were typical of the French cinema in the early 1950s.
La Point Courte is actually two films interwoven, one about the local inhabitants of the fishing village and the other about a nameless married couple (Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret) debating whether or not they should stay together. It’s a bold narrative decision (drawn from William Faulker’s novel The Wild Palms) and one that, in theory at least, is supposed to show the interrelated nature of life; the couple’s inwardly directed problems contrast with the external problems the local fisherman are having with the maritime police. In practice, though, it doesn’t work very well, largely because Varda chose to make the two halves of the film so distinctly different in terms of style and tone. Again, on a theoretical level this is an interesting idea, but on screen it creates an awkward juxtaposition. While the scenes with the villagers are shot in a naturalistic, near-documentary style that vividly brings their issues to life, the scenes with the married couple are shot in a pretentiously arty style that almost plays like a parody of European art-film traditions.
Following the style of Robert Bresson, Varda instructed Monfort and Noiret, both of whom were already accomplished actors with solid reputations on stage and screen, to be “models” and to simply read their dialogue, rather than emote it. In a Bresson film this frequently works because it’s done consistently throughout the narrative; it becomes the film’s emotional universe. In La Pointe Courte, it is awkward and unfocused because the naturalistic village scenes draw us in and the scenes with the married couple tear us out of the illusion with their unnatural stiffness. When Varda poses the man and wife at 90-degree angles to each other in extreme close-up on several occasions, the arty and contrived composition only serves to further rip us out of the moment and make emotional connection with the characters all but impossible.
Other aspects of the film, however, are deeply moving. The scenes with the villagers work in the best sense of bringing humanity to life, and Varda’s exquisite tracking shots through the village have a floating, esoteric beauty that is absolutely captivating. And, while the film’s Brechtian narrative structure doesn’t work as either drama or critique, La Pointe Courte will forever be rightly remembered as an important precursor to the New Wave--a film that defied tradition and forged its own path.
|La Pointe Courte Criterion Collection DVD|
|La Pointe-Courte is available exclusively as part of the Criterion Collection’s “4 by Agnès Varda” box set. The box also includes Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), La bonheur (1964), and Vagabond (1985).|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|SRP||$79.96 (box set)|
|Release Date||January 22, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The new high-definition transfer of La Pointe Courte was made from a 35mm fine-grain master positive struck from a restored negative. Considering that the film is more than a half a century old, was made on a low budget, and has been only rarely seen until recent years, it looks extremely good (as with all recent Criterion releases of films in the Academy aspect ratio, the image is slightly windowboxed). The image is generally sharp with good detail and nice contrast. The MTI Digital Restoration System has cleaned up most signs of age and dirt, although a few vertical lines persist here and there. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the optical track positive and digitally restored, sounds fine.|
|This disc includes two interviews with Agnès Varda. The first is a 15-minute interview recorded in 2007, and the second is a 9-minute segment from a 1964 episode of the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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