Why Did I Watch It? Classic film club watch.
In a small Mediterranean fishing village, the locals go about their daily business. There are shellfish to be caught, authorities to dodge, and a million day-to-day tasks to be completed. Against this backdrop, an unhappy young woman comes to visit her husband. He is a local who has returned after time away, she is from Paris, the locals regard them both as outsiders. The couple are having marital problems which they hash out via some lengthy, metaphysical conversations.
Agnes Varda’s feature debut is a classic first movie. Some parts of it are inspired, some parts less successful, it probably functions best as a marker for what the director would achieve with later projects. Her style is immediately present; assured, confident and minimalist. Watching this I was struck by how instinctively she knows where to place the camera; it is very economically constructed, with hardly a wasted shot, but still with an inherent sense of style. She has a great eye for real locations, and has found some striking, outskirts-of-town spots to frame her characters.
The story has two tracks, one of which works better than the other. Small village life is quite beautifully captured; the sun baked streets, ramshackle houses, and salty old dogs scrutinising the daily catch. These scenes have a natural rhythm to them, and a very colourful cast of non-actors to bring them to life. Perhaps the standout is the rambunctious boating festival the characters attend, where the town’s young hotheads square off via gondola jousting. I also enjoyed the viciousness with which the government figures in the film, the fishing industry regulators, are depicted; the rejection of authority apt for a young film maker who was part of a revolutionary movement.
Less successful is the other track, which charts the unhappy relationship. This starts moodily, and only gets more ponderous. The couple’s very lengthy discourses cover not just their own melancholy, but the nature of melancholy as a concept. This is so overwrought I felt it might have been satirical, poking fun at the archetypes and tropes of arthouse drama. But even if this was the intention, this does not make it any less tiresome to sit through. These scenes are also not aided by the minimal screen presence of the two leads, who barely register.
There is a lot to enjoy in the rest. I have not even mentioned all the many shots of cats that populate the film; sunning themselves, walking in and out of shots, even getting their own closeups. This adds to the playful tone of the best parts, which have an ‘anything goes’ undercurrent in keeping with what would become known as the French New Wave. While this is not as formally audacious as ‘Breathless’, or other early films from that scene, it has the same DIY, find-a-location-and-shoot ethic. And this film predates them all: Varda was the only prominent New Wave director who was a woman, and she got there before all of her male contemporaries. If all of the different components don’t quite hang together, it really just shows someone enthusiastically learning on the job.
An at times very stylish curio, that helps chart the emergence of a major artist.
Watched via a Criterion disk from a very smart boxed set fatiekitz has. Here is a link to an excellent essay on the movie, on their site.