10/40/70 - La Pointe Courte
In the book 10/40/70, author Nicholas Rombes recognizes the necessity of constraint as a means of liberating film criticism in the digital era. In this section of my reviews, I will be deploying the same techniques utilized by Rombes; analyzing the contents of the frames a film contains at the 10 minute, 40 minute, and 70 minute marks. These reviews will be posted every Wednesday. Craigen Z Oster
La Pointe Courte (Agnès Varda, 1955)
Agnès Varda, the queen (and actually, the only woman for that matter) of the French New Wave may have invented modern arthouse cinema with her first feature. Aspects of her film have echoed all the way into the most acclaimed films of the current arthouse moment, most prominently in the near-immaculately acclaimed 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Without Varda, there is no Sciamma. Without this film, there is also likely no Godard, at least in the sense that his films would have been certainly different. I've seen Godard cited as inspiration for the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Kelly Reichardt, Lars Von Trier, Andrea Arnold, Terrance Malick, Lynne Ramsey, Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Soderbergh, just to name a few. But really, it all comes back to La Pointe Courte, a film that almost no one saw upon its initial release in Paris in 1955. However he people that did see it, namely Godard, François Truffaut, and Éric Rohmer, would all go on to radically change independent arthouse cinema, usher in a new era of style, bombast, and realism the would spread across the globe.
I feel that it is important that this be known. This came before Breathless, The 400 Blows, Persona, and a whole host of other films made by men that supposedly burst open the medium as one that could seamlessly blend but high class intellectualism with everyday realism. None of those films would exist had their creators not seen this seminal work by Varda.
A nameless woman steps out into the afternoon sun cutting up some sort of fruit or vegetable for the small cat at her feet. There are cats everywhere throughout this film. These cats don't appear to "belong" to any one person or family in the traditional sense, as they come and go as they please and wander wherever they may. They disappear at random without a trace. These cats live in a different one than the humans around them, unconcerned with the day to day problems of small town life. This seems to be a microcosm of the overall narrative at play in Varda's film, one that that features a couple returning to the place where the man grew up as they decide whether or not to remain together, all while the lives of various families throughout the town play out, wholly unrelated to the couple's story. The couple and the villagers exist in the same space, yet they don't at the same time.
The composition of this shot also makes it appear as though the woman is holding on to the shadow of the clothesline in front of her. She is connected to this clothesline. As the scene plays out, it is just that, a woman taking down her sheets from the line. There is some casual conversation with a woman next door, but nothing relevant beyond the actual act itself. The woman is propelled forward in life by these everyday tasks, not some self-imposed, self-reflexive narrative of her life. She is quite literally connected to these daily tasks, and likely always will be.
Lui voices his displeasure with his wife. Her unhappiness is never ending, and yet Lui displays a cold, uncaring expression on his face as he delivers this line. Is he so fed up that he no longer cares either?
Varda's camera looks down on Lui. Is this because he is in the wrong? Certainly he may be. He has cheated on his wife. But Elle does not care about the infidelity. She is pondering something deeper; whether love is, or can ever be, something beyond a false construct. As a female director, Varda appears to have a completely different gaze with her lens when juxtaposed with her contemporaries, such as Godard. It is subtle, but it is truly a feminine gaze. This isn't to say that her films are primarily about women and from the perspective of the women in her stories, rather, the implied view of the camera itself is feminine. Varda's gaze is judging Lui not for his decision to sleeping with another woman, but for his refusal to go further within himself, to question whether or not everything he feels for his wife is merely something imposed upon him by a society that has constructed marriage and love as net social positives for the proliferation of itself.
In what begins the penultimate shot of the film, a boat sits as its last passengers arrive, ready to cast off into the canal. It is uncertain where this boat is going. They talk about making sure not to forget the towels. Maybe a swim? A mothers & sons day on the water?
At first, I was unsure of when this sequence was occurring. Just before, the whole town convened at a Sunday evening party, dancing, drinking, eating, and singing all together as one while the quarreling couple (now reconciled) made their way through the crowd to the train station to head back to their home in Paris. But that is the beauty of movies, and the beauty of this film in general. Perfect logic doesn't matter. Varda was willing to put radical trust in her audience with La Pointe Courte, developing a film that was both highly intellectual and unflinchingly personal to the lives of everyday people in this small working class town.