‘Although a key figure of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda’s importance has been eclipsed somewhat by the legacies of her male contemporaries, Godard and Truffaut et al., and it is only recently that her status as a pioneering figure is being reclaimed – last year she was awarded an Honorary Oscar for her contribution to cinema’ Irish Film Institute (2018).
I attended two of the six films screened at the Agnes Varda retrospective at the Irish Film Institute this month, ‘La Pointe Courte’ (1955) and ‘One Sings, The Other Doesn’t’ (1977). Neither of which I have seen before.
‘La Pointe Courte’ is set in a Mediterranean fishing village, and chronicles the complex relationship of a young married couple, played by Philippe Noiret and Sylvia Monfort. A native of the area, the man tries to understand his Paris-born wife’s feelings of dissatisfaction and isolation.
‘One Sings, The Other Doesn’t’ tells the story of two women, Pomme (Valérie Mairesse) and Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), who form a close bond when Pomme helps Suzanne secure an illegal abortion. Varda explores their contrasting yet parallel lives over the years – Suzanne runs a family planning centre while Pomme sings with a campaigning, feminist folk group.
The full programme of films included:
‘La Pointe Court’ (1955)
‘Cleo from 5 to 7’ (1962)
‘Le Bonheur’ (1965)
‘One Sings, The Other Doesn’t’ (1977)
‘The Gleaners and I’ (2000)
Two of the films I have on DVD, ‘Cleo from 5 to 7’ and ‘The Gleaners and I’, so I was keen to see as many of the others as possible.
‘La Pointe Courte’ (1955)
Black & White, 86 minutes
‘La Pointe Courte’ seems to set a precedent for what we find in the New Wave films of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard and Alain Resnais a fews later. Particularly in her working outside the mainstream film industry, shooting on location, and mixing professional and non-professional actors.
The film’s dual structure is comprised of two disparate, alternating narrative strands, which appear to have no connection with each other, other than the two stories take place in the same location: the young married couple wandering the fields, canals and beaches, talking about their troubled relationship; and the fisherman attempting to evade the coastal patrols, while life goes on as normal in the village. This disconnection is further emphasised by Varda’s filming style. With the detached theatrical acting style of Sylvia Montfort and Phillipe Noiret on the one hand and the ordinary, naturalistic acting style of the villagers on the other.
For me, what makes this film so exciting to see, is its stunning visual style. It reminds me of the photographs of Eugene Atget, Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She seems to catch the reality of the setting and its unique strangeness. From the opening shot as the camera roams through the village, probing shadowy corners and drifting through interior spaces, to the documentary-like shots of the village that appear to have little to do with the actual narrative, but everything to do with conveying a sense of the location. The result is a film that portrays a wonderfully vivid sense of place.
‘One Sings, The Other Doesn’t’ (1977)
Colour, 120 minutes
A very different film to ‘La Pointe Courte’ in theme and style, ‘One Sings, The Other Doesn’t’ follows the trajectories of two female friends in the context of women’s struggle for the legalisation of contraception and abortion. Uses two women with contrasting temperaments to evoke different approaches to the struggle. Pauline is a young activist with an upbeat personality. Suzanne is a melancholy single mother who finds herself pregnant again. When the film starts in 1962, Pauline is a teenager, wanders into an art gallery run by photographer Jerome, and discovers that his partner is her former neighbour Suzanne. Pauline agrees to help Suzanne get an abortion by tricking her parents into giving her money. Suzanne finds her way in the world running a family planning centre. Pauline renames herself ‘Pomme’ and travels France as part of a feminist consciousness raising folk group.
The action jumps to 1972, to an abortion rights demonstration in Paris. It’s clear that this is not simply a fiction film. Varda also uses a documentary style, bringing specific moments alive with an air of spontaneity – as in the faces of women waiting for abortions in Amsterdam or the apparently real crowds gathered around the touring folk band. Turning the film from what could easily become a women’s buddy movie into a film that actively engagements with the contemporary struggle for abortion rights. The film ends in 1976, with signs pointing to a hopeful future.
Lots of interesting things to think about after seeing these two films. Very relevant to the studying I have been doing on visual style and my interest in the sense of place within the moving image.
Certain filmmakers jump out for their innovation and creative vision. For me, these two films by Agnes Varda are a great find. Seeing them on screen, as they were intended to be viewed, was a wonderful experience and I am very drawn to the way she sees and thinks about the world.
List of references
Irish Film Institute (2018) Agnes Varda: Gleaning Truths At: https://ifi.ie/agnes-varda-gleaning-truths/ (Accessed on 8 September 2018)