Agnès Varda’s first feature film, La Pointe Courte (1955) is frequently cited as being the first film of the French New Wave (and Varda herself has been dubbed the “grandmother of the Nouvelle Vague”). Attempting to define the Nouvelle Vague is a difficult and complicated task, but it is interesting to consider the influences behind this film, and its influence on future films.
In her essay “How Agnès Varda ‘Invented’ the New Wave”, Ginette Vincendeau notes that the grainy black-and-white footage of fishermen working all day long echoes Italian Neorealism. Varda shot mostly using natural light, and the cast of fishermen and townspeople was comprised of non-actors – the workers and residents of the town are exactly who they portray onscreen. This is characteristic of Italian Neorealism, a movement in which filmmakers used cheap black-and-white film stock and non-actors to portray a “real” sense of what it was like to live and work in certain parts of the world. Varda herself spent time in Sète, where the film takes place, and she was clearly sympathetic to the poverty and struggles of living in a tiny fishing village. These characters work around the police, who attempt to interfere with their business due to fishing restrictions and alleged bacteria in the water. The fishermen have no choice – they must work, or they will have no money for their families.
The women of the town are shown cooking, taking care of children, and assisting with the fishermen’s business. Varda highlights the labour that women must perform in this small town. To be a woman is to work extremely hard, both in the home and outside of the home. Women do whatever they can for their families in this film. Women band together and support one another as much as they can. Yes, they gossip about who is pregnant, but this is simply a way for them to bond over their shared experiences. When one child, Daniel, gets sick and eventually dies, all the other women of the town gather in the doorway of his home, peering in with their hearts broken. Daniel’s grandmother cries out in agony, and all the other women think to themselves that it could have easily been their own child who had died. Varda addresses this painful aspect of living in this place at this point in time. Proper medical care was not available, so when a young child gets sick, he or she does not have much hope of getting treatment. The women of the town are aware of this painful reality, and worry for the sake of their own children when they see Daniel’s family grieving his wrongful death.
Varda noted that this film is divided into two halves, two different storylines. We have the Neorealism of the fishing village, the workers and the mothers, and we also have the storyline between a married couple (Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort). The film switches between the two storylines seamlessly – and I don’t mean “seamless” in the sense that one does not notice the difference between the two storylines, but I mean seamless in the way that Varda perfectly edits together the disparate stories. Both “halves” of the film are given equal importance and screentime. Yes, they are very different, and Varda highlights these differences.
The married couple’s journey through Sète resembles the European art film mode of filmmaking, rather than the Italian Neorealist style. Him and Her are both alienated, and suffer from existential crises. Varda provides us with shots of water and grass and the ground, as well as the couple walking beside one another throughout the town. Varda gives us close-ups of their faces from various angles as they contemplate their marriage and their feelings for one another. She has spent a lot of time in Paris, and she brings an “intellectual”, big city perspective to this small town, and to her marriage. Her husband is from Sète, and he is very attached to this place – she is not, she is independent and able to explore the world on her own. The couple spends most of their screentime discussing their marriage – She expresses her desire to leave him, to end their marriage. She is not satisfied, and feels unhappy. He protests, asking her how she could possibly be unsatisfied when she is married to a kind and patient man such as himself. This man believes that his wife owes him her happiness. He does not see her as a complex human being, but as something that makes him whole, and complete. Because they are married, he believes that she must always be happy, satisfied, and appreciative of him. He scolds her for thinking about heavy things, as though women should not be allowed to think at all. He only wants her to have thoughts that he approves of. She resists these reductive things that he says, while still being sympathetic to him and to their marriage.
Varda blends Neorealism and European art cinema (which technically had not yet begun) in La Pointe Courte, which is why many consider this to be one of the first Nouvelle Vague films. This film is much less frantic and vibrant than those of the critic-turned-filmmakers of the Cahiers du Cinéma. At one point, She tells her husband that Paris is a place of excitement, where people go to make something of themselves. This scene takes place in the bottom of a boat, where her husband sits on a bench and she wanders around, touching the walls and exploring the space. She is more restless than he is – She notes that he taught her how to be still. La Pointe Courte is a film of stillness, rather than chaotic energy like one would see later on in the cinema of Godard. Of course there is no judgment as to whether the big city is better or worse than this small town, but Varda simply highlights the differences.
The film blends Neorealism (past) and European art cinema (future), but more than that, Varda presents her own feminist-leaning view of what French life was like in the 1950s. She shows us how small-town women and men lived their lives and worked hard to make what little money they could, and how a marriage between a small-town man and a big-city woman could be filled with contradictions and complications. This is a film of opposites and contradictions. It is black and white, big and small, quiet and loud, happy and sad, Neorealist and polished/stylish. There are no absolutes with this film, just a quiet exploration of a specific time and place, masterfully put together by one of the greatest French filmmakers of all time.