By Tiffany Unscripted
No other cinematic accomplishment could be more jaw-droppingly impressive than Agnès Varda’s creation of La Pointe Courte. It was Varda’s first feature film and was referred to as “the first film of the nouvelle vague” by Georges Sadoul. The Belgian-born, French film director is considered a timeless inspiration for young filmmakers because of her cult classics.
Varda didn't have any formal training in filmmaking. Her experience with literature, photography, and psychology influenced her love for cinema. Her interests in these areas became the catalyst to create some of Agnes Varda’s most eminent gems, like La Pointe Courte, Vagabond, Le Bonheur, and Cléo from 5 to 7.
Integration of New Wave
Historian Sandy Flitterman-Lewis considered Varda to be the “grandmother” of the "New French Wave." She was also one of the only female filmmakers in this wave. She was so meticulous in details and planning of her work that she completed La Pointe Courte with only one-tenth of an average French film budget.
Varda’s unique style of direction, scriptwriting, shooting, and casting was considered groundbreaking in mid-1950s French cinema. Her use of non-professional actors and shooting on location was revolutionary in the film world. Moreover, there is an evident change of her craft in the postwar feature films and documentaries that incorporated clear feminist ideology like Vagabond (1985) and Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961).
Fusion of Different Genres
Varda decided to make La Pointe Courte after completing her studies and working as a photographer in Paris. She writes about a young man and his struggle to save his marriage to his wife of four years. The couple attempt to solve their marital issues by traveling to the husband’s home town of La Pointe Courte. Varda had spent her childhood in Sete, and her familiarity with the area added an autobiographical dimension to the film which made it a part of the "new wave ethos."
It's Varda's unorthodox mashup of fiction and documentary that makes her films resonate with viewers. The film embraced documentary styles through the use of footage of the actual town, its inhabitants, and their everyday life. Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret were the only actors in the film, playing the central couple. Varda had them deliver their lines in a detached fashion, like they were reading to contrast the delivery and ordinary accents of villagers. In this way, two dissimilar worlds are presented and build a complex narrative that requires you to really listen to the dialogue to understand the meaning.
Breaking the Norms
Agnes Varda’s approach to the presentation of the narrative was also quite innovative. She envisioned her movie, Le Bonheur, as “a beautiful summer fruit with a worm inside.” Varda wanted to present a very unorthodox understanding of what happiness actually is. The imagery of the sunflower, sunlight, and family members hand-in-hand are meant to be rather satirical in nature. They are general images associated as representations of happiness.
However, Varda presented clues in the movie showing the tyranny that occurs for the eternal happiness of the male protagonist. She replaces the happy images with ones that appear cruel and upsetting in nature. This causes viewers to feel uncertain about the message of the story. Her character, François, broke the codes on how life should be led in Western society instead living out a stereotypical male fantasy and bucked the conventional moral rules in society. The depiction of male-female romance and sexual openness were the major themes that grabbed the attention of her audience and allowed her to examine the patriarchal society and our following of the views our society is entrenched in. These same societal norms and themes are also examined through the central character of Vagabond.
Meticulously Crafted Mise-en-Scène
Varda’s uses her craft of cinematography to build an appreciation of the existential and physical world of her movies from the very start through the use of long tracking shots. This technique can be observed during the opening credits of the films Vagabond and La Pointe Courte. One can observe windswept, fishing houses and the trees of the neighborhood. It provides a feeling of connection between the audience and the setting. The viewers can almost see the mistrals howling in the Mediterranean. There are camera pauses to show the interior of houses, illustrating the financial situation of the families.
In one symbolic scene, there's a woman feeding her children. This scene is poignant in its simplicity. Varda successfully communicates the central themes of the movie by using everyday visceral scenes like this together to weave several narrative threads. There is footage of the townspeople eating, quarreling, working, courting, and gossiping. The attire of a fishing inspector, laborer, or a washing man communicates their status and place in the story. It's brilliant, because these visual images eliminate a need to explicitly state the level of authority these characters have to the viewers. Another unique component of her work is the ethnographic approach she took to filming. This can be seen in Le Bonheur (1965) and Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961) in which the rich and textured landscapes “speak” to the characters.
Interest in Fearful Female Protagonists
Varda’s focus and interest in examining her female characters is quite evident in her character Cleo, from Cléo from 5 to 7, and her character Mona in Vagabond. While she generally avoids being tagged as a feminist pioneer, complex female psyches and motivations are driving forces in her characters' development. Like tragic heroes, the women she writes are flawed, but they are also fully formed and good.
This level of character development adds texture to her narratives. In Vagabond, there is a lingering shot on a dead body of a girl and the female voiceover of Verda herself tells the audience that the movie intends to pursue the actual story of what took place. The character of Mona is partially based on the true story of a woman Verda once met on a road. Her desire to fully examine and understand the female characters in her work was revolutionary.
Verda's rich storytelling is practically unmatched today. Whether it is a truck driver or a frustrated housekeeper, all of her characters are detailed and original versions of people she's acquainted with. The character, Mona, is full of fear and needs her death to be redeemed. As for Cleo, the character faces death and feels a relatable fear. Cleo was a star who was adored by everyone. Although Cleo's life is in contrast to Mona's life as a vagabond, they share similar fears in the face of death, which makes them relatable to viewers.
Both the films, in their own way, motivate the women to face and overcome their fears. The manifestation of fear can be seen as the central theme in Vagabond and Cléo from 5 to 7. This focus on fear can also be related back to the filmmaker’s own struggles. These feelings and feminist concerns examined serve as the hook that adds depth to her characters. Her characters search for humanity through their struggles and flaws. This makes Cleo and Mona endlessly captivating.
Conclusion and Discussion
Varda was among one of the rare filmmakers who not only contributed to but went beyond the conventions of new wave of cinema. Her unique style of fusing fiction with fact made her work truly extraordinary. She challenged and shattered Western norms in Le Bonheur and Vagabond. Her fascination with the female protagonist and their fears is quite evident in her characters Cleo and Mona, yet, she's careful to not focus on their flaws.
The most important and significant aspect of her film style is her meticulously crafted mise-en-scène and how it contributes substantial value to the character and narrative development. Thus, it can be concluded that the craft Agnès Varda created and utilized was groundbreaking and much ahead of its time.
Tiffany Unscripted is the Managing Editor of Your Film Review at Occhi Magazine. She manages a small team of writers that cover all genres of movies, including writing featured articles on trending topics. In addition to writing, they cover live events, such as film premieres and screenings all across the country.
She especially enjoys the opportunity to meet emerging talent who enjoy sharing their passion, journey, challenges, and success with our readers. You can learn more about Your Film Review at OcchiMagazine.com.