La Pointe Courte & Faces Places

La Pointe Courte (1954)
Faces Places (2017)

Agnès Varda died last weekend, aged ninety. Unlike many artists she managed to keep her creativity levels at a very high standard right till the end.

Last year saw the release in Britain of her documentary Faces Places, which Peter Travers in Rolling Stone called ‘the year’s best, most beguiling documentary,’ before mentioning the phrase ‘sheer perfection’ to describe it.

He wasn’t its only fan. It was screened out of competition at Cannes, where it won the L’Œil d’or award, and was later nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 90th Academy Awards.

It’s easy to see why so many film fans enjoyed Faces Places. Varda is so damn likeable, it’s impossible not to enjoy seeing her scoot across rural France in a van – doubling as a photo booth – with her companion for the tour, JR, a thirty-three-year-old photographer who co-directs the documentary along with her and is never seen without his sunglasses on.

Yes, the format could be compared to the sort of TV show where a celeb or celebs embark on a road trip but here wherever Agnès and JR head to, they end up memorializing some of the most interesting folk (and animals) they meet. JR specialises in making massive format photographic prints, which he (along with his team) plaster up on the walls, water towers, trains and other surfaces of the villages they visit. Even a huge tower of shipping containers is utilized at one point.

Agnes Varda & mural

Varda was a key figure in French New Wave cinema although she wasn’t French (being born and brought up in Belgium) and had started her long career in filmmaking before the term New Wave had been popularised, so you could easily argue that she is a precursor to that cinematic movement.

Like a number of visually interesting directors – Ken Russell, Stanley Kubrick and Lynne Ramsay spring to mind – she started off as a photographer. A spell studying at the highly regarded Ecole de Vaugirard led to her to finding a job at the Théâtre national populaire, where she met many actors including Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret.

She set up a tiny independent production company Cine-Tamaris, a co-operative with the lead actors & crew members in order to make her debut film La Pointe Courte. No one was paid during filming and the budget was tiny.

Filmed in Sète on the southern coast of France, where Varda lived during her adolescence, this is a study of a married couple – played by Monfort and Noiret – in crisis, wondering if they should stay together.

La Pointe Courte

It’s also a portrait of the fishing village where Noiret’s unnamed character was born and raised, which, as the film opens is about to see the arrival of government inspectors, visiting to see if villagers are fishing with the legally approved permits and also possibly harvesting potentially poisonous shellfish.

Shot in a gorgeously luminous black and white, Varda documents the lives of the locals vividly as they eat, fish, argue, gossip, take down sheets from a clothes line in a billowing wind, and even take part in a local sporting tradition known as joutes – a kind of water jousting event that still takes place in the area and is something of a tourist attraction.

Critics adored La Pointe Courte but sadly it was denied the opportunity to ever become any kind of commercial success at the time.

La Pointe Courte - Agnes Varda

The Centre National de la Cinématographie, a government agency whose remit included the promotion of cinema in France, deemed it as ‘amateur’, as Varda had shot it without their authorization. This meant that it was not allowed to be shown in any commercial cinemas. A real shame, although it was screened at Cannes and later enjoyed a two week run in Paris at the Art et essai Studio Parnasse in 1956.

Varda didn’t make another feature length film until Cléo from 5 to 7 in 1961 by which point the New Wave was very much up-and-running with Le Beau Serge, The 400 Blows, and Breathless, having all been keenly discussed hits and international successes.

For someone who had only seen a very limited number of films by the time she turned twenty-five, it’s extraordinary that over sixty years after her debut, Varda was still involved in filmmaking.

faces-places-banner-poster3

In Faces Places – or Visages Villages, to give it its French title – Agnès is obviously very old. She knows she’s very old. She struggles to get around as she once did and her eyesight is beginning to fail her.

She compares JR’s penchant for never being seen without shades with that of her old pal Jean Luc-Godard, who decades before shared the same habit, and she wants to see JR’s eyes properly while she can. This leads to a melancholic moment that is simultaneously predictable and unpredictable.

Equally sad is her trip to visit Godard. Once close comrades in the heyday of the New Wave, Varda is keen to meet him once more as it’s been years since they met. On the day, Godard refuses to open his door and a disconsolate Varda later closed the door on their friendship and wasn’t sure if Godard had even bothered to watch the film.

Luckily, the bulk of Faces Places is much more enjoyable for the director with plenty of offbeat humor and unexpected moments of joy.

The Agnès/JR double act has been described as a clash of generations and several critics called the pair an ‘odd couple’. Maybe what is really odd though, is the idea that the old and young can’t bond the way these two did. I’m sure Faces Places must have been a life affirming experience for both. And for the villagers who took part in it and the viewers who have watched it too

Agnès Varda 30 May 1928 – 29 March 2019.

To see the trailer for La Pointe Courte, click here. To see the trailer for Faces Places, here’s your link.