In September 1997, I saw Agnès Varda introduce a brand-new 35 mm print of her first feature film, La Pointe Courte (made in 1954), to an admiring audience at Yale University. More astonishing than the luminous black-and-white images was Varda’s claim that she had seen virtually no other films before making it (after racking her brain, she could come up with only Citizen Kane). Whether Varda’s assertion was true or the whim of an artist who does not wish to acknowledge any influence, La Pointe Courte is a stunningly beautiful and accomplished first film. It has also, deservedly, achieved a cult status in film history as, in the words of historian Georges Sadoul, “truly the first film of the nouvelle vague.”
Thanks to historians of that movement, and especially to Sandy Flitterman-Lewis’s study of Varda in her book To Desire Differently, Varda’s role as a pioneer—if not the “mother” or “grandmother”—of the new wave is now better known, and not just for the fact that she was the only woman director in it. The production of La Pointe Courte by Varda’s own tiny company, Ciné-Tamaris, completely outside the film industry and on a budget a tenth the size of that of the average French film (the money came mostly from a family inheritance and loans from friends; she had no professional training and would not get an official French film industry membership card until much later), Varda’s authorial control over both scriptwriting and directing, the exclusive use of location shooting, the mixing of professional and nonprofessional actors—all of this was groundbreaking in early 1950s France. For these reasons and others, La Pointe Courte was a precursor of the films that Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard would start making five years later, and of those of Alain Resnais, who worked as editor on Varda’s film and whose generosity in that capacity and as a mentor she has gratefully acknowledged. Seeing La Pointe Courte again in 2007, after Varda’s extraordinary documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), also confirms how prophetic this first feature was, heralding—beyond the new wave—some of the most exciting developments in French postwar cinema, as well as in Varda’s own career. She would go on to make numerous documentaries and feature films, including the groundbreaking Cléo from 5 to 7 in 1961 and Vagabond in 1985.
Back in the early 1950s, after studying philosophy and art in Paris, and working as a photographer, the young Varda decided to make a film set in la Pointe Courte. The area is a neighborhood of Sète, a city located in an unusual, marshy region between sea and lagoon—the étang de Thau—on the western Mediterranean coast. The story was simple: a young Parisian couple spend a few days in la Pointe Courte (where the husband grew up) in order to decide whether to stay together or not. Varda knew the area well—she lived in Sète in her adolescence—and this autobiographical dimension is another aspect of the film that places it within the new-wave ethos. But even beyond this personal involvement and the conditions of the film’s production, La Pointe Courte anticipates the new wave in its dialectical meshing of documentary and fiction, of neorealist aesthetics and high culture. On the documentary side is the overwhelming presence of the neighborhood, its inhabitants (whom Varda also credits for the script), its everyday life and rituals. On the high-culture side are the actors who play the central couple, Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret. Both were then with the prestigious Théâtre national populaire, where Varda worked as a photographer, and their performances bear signs of this milieu: they declaim their lines in a cryptic, detached fashion that deliberately contrasts with the villagers’ ordinary and accented speech. Accusations of stilted acting made at the time are misplaced, as Varda explicitly asked them “not to act or express feelings” and “to say their dialogue as if they were reading it.” (Moreover, because of her low budget, Varda had to shoot the film silent, and all voices were postsynchronized, the villagers dubbed by southern actors, which, Varda reports, annoyed them. She retained a good relationship with them, however, and has shown the film to the locals every ten years since its making.) Linking the two disparate worlds is a complex narrative structure that, as Flitterman-Lewis discusses, was borrowed from William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms.
The materiality of the existential world of la Pointe Courte is present right from the credits, shot over the close-up grain of a piece of wood—revealed to be a section of a tree trunk when the camera moves away in a long tracking shot that leads us into the village. There follow several forward and lateral tracking shots (prefiguring Varda’s Vagabond) of the windswept, straight streets of the neighborhood and its low-lying fishing houses and shacks. One can almost feel the wind, the mistral that howls up the Mediterranean coast, making the washing dance frenetically on the line. The camera pauses to show the interior of a house where a woman feeds her many children, starting a theme that will run through the film.