Saturday, August 22, 2020

La Pointe-Courte

Short Points

Released an entire year after only a single début screening at the 1955 edition of the Festival de Cannes (out of competition), La Pointe-Courte found one of its earliest champions in André Bazin, who in August '55 wrote in Radio-Cinéma-Télévision that "Agnès Varda's film essentially constitutes an excellent example of what has become the genuine cinematographic avant-garde.... [there's] simply a will to express through cinema spiritual and moral realities, more liberated and more subtle than those that make up more ordinary films. In this sense, the Journal d'un curé de campagne is an avant-garde film, just as was, in 1938, La règle du jeu, just as Rossellini's Journey to Italy undoubtedly is today.  With very modest means, which nonetheless do nothing to turn this into a film d'amateur, Agnès Varda knew how to write in cinema a true petit roman, in which moral experience and the deep personality of the author are tangible in each image." And yet, in the January 1956 [no. 55] Cahiers du cinéma's Conseil des Dix, Bazin, in a different humor, awarded the film only ** out of ****, exactly one year before he changed his tune again in the pages of Le Parisien libéré (7 Jan, no. 3523), deeming La Pointe-Courte in his final word on the matter "a film free and pure," "a miraculous film": "one would have to rescreen Le sang d'un poète to find a film as liberated in its conception from any commercial contingency." It is at once "stripped-down [dépouillé] and composed," exhibiting her talents as a photographer while also demonstrating her aptitude as a writer of dialogue.

What else is extraordinary about this first film, now seen clearly as one of the greatest debuts in the history of cinema, is its status as a feature, 1 hour 20 minutes, Varda having bypassed entirely the making of shorts — having, instead, devoted the earliest part of her career to photography: photography-in-itself, not as roman-photo nor as the typical economical run-up to a vocation in filmmaking. She suggests in a filmed 2012 discussion with Mathieu Amalric (included on the "2: Early Varda" disc of Criterion's The Complete Films of Agnès Varda) that she was chasing after motion only as an incidentally sequential pursuit; Amalric observes that from the very opening of this very first film, the wind, as though like a gift from the gods, was with her. The initial push-ins on the street corridors of La Pointe-Courte (which is after all a fishing village in the vicinity of Sète in the Occitanie, full-stop) float among and along the mistral winds though the loftiness of the expression hails not entirely from the gods' beneficence; the technical prowess of Varda and crew make for traveling shots that attain great heights indeed, supplemented by a camera gliding through the rooms — pièces — of domestic households front to back, out the rear windows... It's like seeing the end of The Passenger in early rehearsal. (Varda's village images are not, in fact, far off from early Antonioni either: Le amiche, say, or L'eclisse.)

Objects not only vibrate (at least two or three images predate the staging — and the physiognomical interests — of Straub-Huillet: specifically those of the grandfather and clan, and of the knife-sharpener seated on his bicycle-grinder: both incidentally to be found in S&H's 1999 Sicilia!), they establish their solidity in space and time by metamorphosing within logical bounds. As such, a makeshift crib transforms into a coffin; an old fortress stands fast but ruined (Noiret's medieval haircut plays up his station as a warrior errant, returned home after time served in Paris — five days); a shaving bowl cuts to a bucket and an eel, as though the whiskers themselves might speckle the creature: one early example of Varda's plastic genius, secreting the specific detail à la Vigo or Renoir. And the tour de force sequence, recalling the first example: the death of p'tit Daniel –> the drowning of the cat in a bucket of tar.

Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret delight me with their exchanges and oddness. Noiret: "I'm glad you're here, but this isn't about us. It's just a pleasure, being living here." Monfort: "You think so? ... I wonder why I'm here where you chose to be born." (Hail the cat that disturbs this painstaking solipsism!)

(The gripe of the fishermen — "Why do they bother us poor guys with 'sanitary' vs. 'unsanitary'?" — could come from an early Gainsbourg song, like the ticketpuncher's or piano-mover's lament!)

Is it impossible to perceive a "dépouillé" film that is dubbed — and in dialect — as one of the finest ever? It's all true: la terra trema shakes the redes from this-or-that episode of Bourdain to the shores of the Stromboli volcano.


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