Room for Cinema in Agnes Varda’s La Pointe Courte
July 29, 2017 11:02 pm
Influential French filmmaker Agnes Varda’s debut film La Pointe Courte (1956) is a great reminder to modern cinephiles what film-viewing experience can be. Following the footsteps of Italian Neorealism and in the wake of the French New Wave, La Pointe Courte serves as an amalgam of the kind of films that transformed our understanding and appreciation of film language and aesthetics. It not only represents a major step in cinema history, but is also a refreshing viewing experience for the modern moviegoer who is accustomed to conventional plot and character development and an easily discernable protagonist.
La Pointe Courte differs from most mainstream films in a few ways. First, it has two storylines that don’t connect by a cause-and-effect relationship. One storyline witnesses local fishermen’s struggle against the government inspectors who threaten their livelihood by placing restrictions on their fishing zones. The string of impersonal documentary-like scenes of fishing, sharing mishaps with inspectors and ordinary familial events is intercut with a more personal narrative where a married couple questions their love for each other. The couple has intimate dialogues that are specific to their innermost feelings and philosophical ruminations on love and marriage, using the fishing town as an agent of change, which first agitates their romance, then replenishes it.
The film is also inventive in that Varda uses entirely different visual styles for filming the two worlds. She evokes the Italian Neorealist tradition for the fishermen, where non-professional actors are filmed living their ordinary lives almost in real time with seemingly little manipulation from the filmmaker. This documentary-style allows these sections of the film an unsentimental reality. Even the death of a child becomes a commonplace event in an unchanging world that’s only marginally disturbed by government officials. Varda skillfully mirrors the Neorealist concern with social and economic issues of working class people.
On the other hand, the couple’s world is highly stylized. Varda’s choices of uncertain, downbeat music, meticulously composed mise-en-scenes, symbolic inserts of images that intensify the couple’s dialogue and the choice of expressive settings are the foreshadowing elements of the French New Wave’s way of experimentation with the film form.
For instance, the couple’s walk on the beach or through town in lengthy tracking shots are intercut with static shots of crabs, a dead cat, eels caught in a net, a fork in the road, train tracks to match the tone and content of their conversation. As they speak about their failing marriage and how difficult they find it to relate to their love for each other, they’re inside the skeleton of an old wooden boat as if inside a womb, out of which their relationship will be reborn. Another noteworthy aesthetic choice is the unnatural framing of the actors’ merging faces. Varda’s compositions precede that of Ingmar Bergman’s stylistically influential Persona, filmed a decade after La Pointe Courte. Varda’s visual style is clearly an inspiration for the developing aesthetics of European art house cinema.
Varda interlaces her seemingly disparate storylines and visual styles in a way that draws attention to a major distinction in social and behavioral norms in French society. In contrast with the slow, flowing scenes of townsfolk’s daily struggle and acceptance of what they have and have not, the couple dissect and question their thoughts and emotions in a cryptic language, in discord with each other and their environment’s rhythms. Varda depicts a modern, urban couple moving around in a world they don’t belong, while life flows around them free of existential crisis. Their landlady’s statement, “They’re always talking; they mustn’t be happy,” sums up this distinction.
The intellectual, overwritten dialogue, coupled with erratic editing and an expressive music score sets the couple’s scenes clearly apart from the townsfolk’s. Varda, without seeming to do so, elicits commentary on life’s ironic contrasts with images, sounds and editing –the great weapons of film language– while remaining equally distant from both of her storylines.
From a modern perspective it is a hard task to enjoy a film like La Pointe Courte. It is remarkably slow-paced; performances are blunt; the plot is hardly engaging and the structure is fragmented. However, Varda’s invitation to step in and feel the film, as opposed to merely consume it, is a priceless gift for the modern film lover. Simply observing the ebbs and flows of a slice of life in a town called La Pointe Courte, and absorbing Varda’s artistic vision through images and rhythms is enough to appreciate what cinema has to offer.
–This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on July 23, 2017
Swept Away: Lina Wertmüller’s Maze of Sex and Politics
July 20, 2017 12:57 am
Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away is at once outrageous, weird and guiltily seductive. As the poster suggests we’re in for passionate love and sex on a beach. The affair’s unlikely pair of counterparts are a rich socialite, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), and a communist deckhand, Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini). The pointedly ironic mismatch, namely the rich girl vs. poor boy tale, seems at first to be the basic premise of the film. But soon enough, Wertmüller’s unapologetic boldness in handling her material makes the film truly stand out. The film has four distinguishable chapters that differ drastically in tone and content, and provide evidence of Wertmüller’s unique storytelling technique.
Wertmüller paints this simple tale with a raw, flawed, hard-to-pin-down approach. The 45-minute introduction sets up the political opinions of the two leads in a cumbersome, simplistic, repetitive series of scenes. We are asked to sympathize with the benign and comic Gennarino and share his resentment toward the rich yacht guests, the outspoken and spoilt Raffaella in particular. This comedy sketch-like opening paints a black-and-white picture of politics. The rich and the poor are stripped out of context and reduced to parroting very basic views of what it means to be rich and what it means to be poor. The rich are tyrannical, self-indulgent and rude; the poor are powerless, envious and resentful. While the film could do with more complexity and depth in its portrayal of political views by adding more context and backstory for the two leads, its lack of dimension brings a naivety and cartoonishness that lighten the mood and increase the power of the brutishness that is to follow.
After finding themselves shipwrecked, the primitive island life sucks them in; the power roles are reversed. With money taken out of the equation, the poor communist Gennarino suddenly has the upper hand. The social structures built around the class struggle are at once laid bare and ridiculed. Gennarino is savvier at hunting for food, building a fire and finding shelter and uses his capability as currency against Raffaella. He mercilessly exercises the privileges of his newfound status in his instant kingdom. Raffaella’s obeisance is not enough; she has to serve him and submit to his supremacy if she wants to survive. Primitive life apparently calls for primitive relationships. Money is replaced by survival skills; the fascism of the rich gives way to the fascism of the capable. Wertmüller suggests, in no uncertain terms, that even the poor will turn tyrannical when he holds the power; it is human nature.
If the opening chapter on the yacht gave us a watered-down version of fascism, the second chapter on the island reveals the fascism that resides in all of us. The third chapter turns our attention to the sexual tension between the castaways, and it is sex that finally brings complexity to Swept Away, filling its dull politics with conflict, giving them stakes and sophistication. The face of fascism once again changes: it leaps from fascism of the powerful to fascism of the male, and both kinds apparently look the same.
In the third chapter of Swept Away, Gennarino takes one step further in his insatiable desire to overpower Raffaella. In a near-rape scene, he attempts to conquer her body, but the catch is that he wants her to beg before he’s willing to bestow her the honor. Here things get increasingly murky. When Raffaella was the one in power, Gennarino loathed her and revolted against his position, but when the power equilibrium shifts and she is demeaned and forced to beg, she begins to enjoy it.
Primitive conditions first showed us that nature strips us of our class and enforces equality and cooperation upon our relationships. But now, Wertmüller dares to imply that once the woman loses her artificial power (one that comes with money and social status), she would surely come to appreciate and even crave her subordinate position. That her nature is, in fact, submitting to male power and brutality. Raffaella eventually chooses her privileged old life over a life with Gennarino on the island, but it is with great sadness and regret, as if she’s going against her true nature to fit back into her social role as a socialite.
The sadomasochistic relationship that develops between Gennarino and Raffaella is loaded with potential subversive readings. But if we take this couple as an individual entity, and not as male and female archetypes, then we can ease into accepting the strange possibility of Gennarino’s preposterous demands and Raffaella’s exaggerated willingness to become Gennarino’s slave. Just as the passionately intertwined mass of limbs we grow accustomed to watching, we also learn to see sexiness in the aggression and beauty in the haphazardness.
The last chapter of the film has a melodramatic tone that has an altogether different vibe than the rest. Civilization sweeps Raffaella off her feet despite her resistance. Gennarino and Raffaella know deep down that she would fail in her devotion to Gennarino once they’re back to the realities of a capitalist society. But, Gennarino takes yet another unexpected step and tries to win back Raffaella’s heart by buying her a diamond ring – the ultimate capitalist gesture. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work. Raffaella is too caught up in her life to return to Gennarino, but she has also learned that love cannot be bought.
At its core, Swept Away is a film about simple dualities of rich vs. poor, man vs. woman, communist vs. capitalist. It starts out with a basic premise and takes us through the murky waters of desire, power, ego and love. If only for the nonchalant outrageousness of Wertmüller’s cinema, Swept Away is worth a look from today’s increasingly complicated perspective on feminism and politics.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on June 2, 2017