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Four Ways of Looking at Agnès Varda

Four Ways of Looking at Agnès Varda

Over the course of an adventurous career that encompassed narrative and documentary filmmaking as well as photography, sculpture, and video installation, Agnès Varda was a shape-shifter who merged her deep engagement with social reality with a playful, endlessly inventive approach to form. But no matter how sweeping her vision or how risk-taking her style, her work was always rooted in moments of intimacy and her tenderness toward the lives she depicted. To celebrate the release of The Complete Films of Agnès Varda earlier this week, we spoke with four contemporary filmmakers—Ashley Connor, Anna Rose Holmer, Kirsten Johnson, and Lauren Wolkstein—about the scenes from her oeuvre that resonate most deeply with them. Their selections, drawn from different periods in Varda’s six-decade filmography, turn our attention to her genius for capturing small gestures and exchanges that illuminate complicated human truths.

Lauren Wolkstein on La Pointe Courte (1955)

La Pointe Courte is a film that exists in my dreams. I return to it often to think about its representation of liminal spaces and the fraught relationships that exist there. Agnès Varda became so fascinated with taking pictures of a small fishing village in France that she returned to shoot her first film there. She embraced the townsfolk and made this small film with them for very little money. The film, which is named after the village, brought with it the birth of the French New Wave. But that fact is not recognized widely enough, since Agnès was a woman in a man’s world and wasn’t a part of the original Cahiers du cin é ma crew. Alain Resnais edited La Pointe Courte, and its influence on his Hiroshima mon amour is apparent. Both films, through astute editing, explore the in-between state of memories and tense emotions, juxtaposed with the consciousness of the natural world.

At the center of La Pointe Courte is an unhappy married couple. Their names are never spoken aloud in the film, but we will call them Elle (“her” in French) and Lui (“him”). La Pointe Courte is Lui’s childhood home, and he takes his wife to travel there. We soon realize that she feels imprisoned by this marriage and wants to leave Lui, but he is on a mission to show her that their relationship has evolved from its nascent drunk-in-love stage into something simpler and more banal, like the rest of the married folk in his hometown.

Varda does something incredibly daring and bold for her first film. She throws out all the rules of narrative structure and decides to tell two seemingly disjointed stories, each with its own distinct aesthetic, and have them coalesce only at the end. With a neorealist and documentary approach she observes the daily life of fishermen and their families. This naturalistic style is juxtaposed with the highly aestheticized framing she uses to showcase the married couple’s turmoil. Varda’s confident direction and camera show the couple in rigid, unnatural poses amid the architecture and the land, with the townsfolk in the background observing their odd behavior.

My favorite scene in the film, one that I return to often for inspiration in my own work, depicts Lui taking Elle to an abandoned ship in the middle of a remote part of town. It feels like the couple (and we too) have stumbled upon forgotten treasure. We see them walk down the windy beach hand in hand when Elle says that she can see the strangeness of their connection in Lui’s childhood town in ways she didn’t back in Paris, where she is from and they now reside. We follow their feet as they track across the edge of the water, past artifacts and objects strewn about the sand, until Elle spots a sun-shaped object made of sticks that she picks up and chucks playfully into the water. Elle tells Lui that she wanted to break up with him but this town has given her pause. They continue to walk up to the ruins where Lui expresses that he has given her everything of his youth. He claims that what was his is now hers too. It is then that we see a shot of her standing behind him, merging into him, and the couple become one unit.

Then they crawl into the ship, appearing small compared to their surroundings, as if their troubles have diminished for now. The ship is a magical treasure that will revitalize their marriage with wonder and awe, picking them out of the rut they were in. That’s the power of place. The time this couple shares on the ship awakens Elle to her childhood memories of adventure. We get a glimpse into Lui’s life as a boy playing in this ship as if in the belly of a whale. Elle thought her life should be full of ambition and wanted to make a name for herself in Paris, but here she recognizes the pleasures of stillness, away from the hustle of the city. Lui sits, resting in the natural light shining down from the ship’s opening, while Elle walks to the opposite end of the boat, unable to remain still. They couldn’t be further apart in this moment, and this is a reflection of their relationship: his stillness versus her restlessness. Elle eventually walks back over to Lui, and he pulls her up to sit down next to him. Finally, she is still and also soaked in the light. Now the only thing that exists in the frame is these two lovers in a perfectly balanced two-shot, the center of our world at last.

This scene reminds me of my favorite scene in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, when Dana Andrews’s character wanders into an airplane graveyard and hides away in the nose of a B-17. Inside that old airplane he vividly recalls his life during the war, and we see this in the way he physically changes in that space, as if the space alone triggered all his past memories and traumas. Likewise, the abandoned ship in La Pointe Courte represents childhood for Lui in a way that makes Elle grow fonder of him and makes him vulnerable to her. Locations provide insight and reflection to these characters in a visceral and tactile way. With her childlike curiosity and inquisitive imagination, Varda was able to carve out a brilliant career by exploring people’s relationships within specific places, in both narrative and documentary—and in the case of this film, a hybrid of the two. This debut feature is a pure expression of her imagination, which lives in a liminal space that she invites all of us to explore with her.

Lauren Wolkstein is a writer, director, and editor. Her short film The Strange Ones (2011), codirected by Christopher Radcliff, is now playing on the Criterion Channel.

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