OBJECT LESSON | La Pointe Courte

Varda knows that we see both figuratively and literally, and that both kinds of seeing do in fact have their function. By Louis Rogers

In one chapter of La Mystere de la chambre claire, Serge Tisseron’s very compelling and very French study of photography and the unconscious, Tisseron discusses photographs of things. He suggests that photography fundamentally “defunctionalises” functional objects, by calling attention to their appearance, within a particular formation of the world’s “continuity”. The exception, Tisseron says, is photographs that appear in sales catalogues (he’s writing in 1996), in which objects are often strippped of any background with which they could enter into a new, visual formation.

Agnès Varda shows us both sides of the coin in La Pointe Courte. Her film is a portrait of a small fishing quarter of a town in the south of France, and it devotes extensive attention to the things that make the area up: houses and streets, but also fishing nets and laundry, knives and firewood, railway tracks and boats and all kinds of tools. These are the objects with which the locals make their lives in a pretty literal sense: we see them all in use, producing food, shelter, and comfort

This depiction of the quarter’s everyday life is counterposed with a young Parisian couple’s experience of it as visitors. Troubled by vague misgivings about their relationship, the pair drift around murmuring melancholically, like they’ve wandered out of a different film altogether. They relate to the same material surroundings in an entirely different way, as if inhabiting a stage set: walking on opposite sides of a fence leading down to the sea with symbolically charged steps; gazing ambiguously at rows of drying nets, which suddenly become a “sight”; climbing inside the dramatic chiaroscuroed hull of an upturned boat. They see with Tisseron’s eyes for abstracted appearance. At one point, one of them picks up what seems to be a kind of gardening hoe, then drops it down uncomprehendingly. I say “looks like” because, just as Tisseron describes, the tool is effectively defunctionalised, and you can’t necessarily tell what the tool is for.

The counterpoint between these two perspectives could be sardonic or even acerbic. But Varda is too generous for that. The Parisian couple never feel derided, even when their existential plight gets tryingly self-serious. Instead, Varda uses the two contrasting strands of her film as a double-pronged approach in advocating for sensitive attention, whatever form it takes. While the couple’s interaction with their surroundings is more abstracted than practical, their engagement with the functionless, figurative shapes they see in the town is real – and ultimately it supports their reconciliation. Varda knows that we see both figuratively and literally, and that both kinds of seeing do in fact have their function.  


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