Criterion Sunday 419: La Pointe-Courte (1955)

Varda’s debut is this strikingly prescient film suggesting a lot of threads of European art cinema throughout the middle of the 20th century, the alienation of the central couple, the almost documentary-like depiction of this poor fishing community, the constant counterpoint provided by the melancholy musical score, and plenty else besides. There is a sense in which, being her first feature, there’s a slightly mannered mise en scène, with shots of the couple rigorously symmetrical, or strikingly framed against the landscape in ways that suggest the eye of a photographer, which would make way to the more lyrical feeling of her masterpiece, Cléo from 5 to 7. Still, this is a gorgeous film for its low-budget origins, and gains hugely from the location footage of the locals, not to mention the plentiful roaming cats.

Rewatching this a few years after my first viewing reinforces what a striking film debut this is, and formally rather interesting even if it somehow feels a little bit stilted. Set against the documentary depiction of the fishing village there is a mannered and very French story of lovers (the only real actors in the film, Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort) who speak in a poetic philosophical register as they grapple with their fading romance. The two strands are almost separate and seem set against each other, but there’s a beautiful sense of place to the film in its depiction of this village and the sturdy people who live there, who seem to find the lovers’ struggles almost absurd.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are two interviews with the director about the film, one in which she invites over Mathieu Amalric to talk about his debut film, although obviously the bulk of the discussion is about hers (she whips out some nice framed photos of her on set), while the other is direct to camera talking about the making of the film. She mentions The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner as a touchstone for the narrative style, in the sense of interleaving two unrelated storylines. She also mentions the copious help she received and the sheer luck that was required to make the film, her being so young and inexperienced, as well as the help given her by the editor, Alain Resnais.
  • Another extra is an eight-minute excerpt from a 1964 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps, in which a young and very serious Varda (quite different from the playful persona she would come to cultivate) talks about her work up to that point (just before Le Bonheur).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Paul Soulignac and Louis Stein; Starring Silvia Monfort, Philippe Noiret; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, 13 August 2018 (and on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 25 April 2021).

Global Cinema 11: Azerbaijan – By the Bluest of Seas (1936)

As a former Soviet Socialist Republic, Azerbaijan has had some past form as a cinema-producing nation, though it’s never made as much of a world impact as say Georgian or even Armenian cinema. Therefore, for my Global Cinema entry this week I’ve gone back to Soviet times, to Boris Barnet’s well-regarded film set on and near the Caspian Sea, which plays an important part in the country’s identity.


Azerbaijani flagRepublic of Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan)
population 10,127,900 | capital Baku (Bakı) (2.15m) | largest cities Baku, Sumqayit (325k), Ganja (323k), Mingachevir (100k), Lankaran (85k) | area 86,600 km2 | religion Islam (97%) | official language Azerbaijani (Azərbaycan dili) | major ethnicity Azerbaijani (92%) | currency Manat (₼) [AZN] | internet .az

A Eurasian country in the South Caucasus, it sits alongside the Caspian Sea, with mountains the north and plains inland, and an exclave to the west (Nakhchivan), cut off by neighbouring Armenia. It also includes a contested territory, the Republic of Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabakh), of primarily Armenian ethnicity, which has its own government but is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. The name derives from the Persian satrap Atropates, who ruled around the time of Alexander the Great, which is itself a transliteration of Old Iranian for “Land of the Holy Fire”, and while the name evolved over millennia, it was only first applied to the region in the 20th century. The earliest settlement dates to the Stone Age, with Scythians and Medes arriving to create their own empires, merged into the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE. Subsequent Sasanian Empire rule gave way to the Umayyads, then Turkic rule from the 11th century. A number of dynasties, many Persian, competed for control over the following millennium until the Russians invaded in the early-19th century. When that Empire collapsed, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was declared in 1918, though it was invaded again due to its strategically important oil and made an SSR in 1920. It declared independence in 1991, celebrated as 18 October. It has an elected President, who forms the Cabinet and appoints a Prime Minister.

The earliest films were made in the country in 1898 in the capital Baku, a prosperous oil town. A steady number of productions were made in successive decades, particularly after it became an SSR under Soviet control, though never more than a handful each year given its small size and the small number of cinema screens.


У самого синего моря U samogo sinego morya (By the Bluest of Seas, 1936)

The blue sea of this film’s title is the Caspian, and the film concerns two strapping young men who are shipwrecked and taken in by a seaside kolkhoz in Azerbaijan only to fall in love with the commune’s leader Masha (Yelena Kuzmina). It’s a very simple set-up, but there’s something engaging about director Boris Barnet’s way with waves, which seem to frame much of the film’s action, whether crashing over fishing boats, dragging away comrades to their (apparent) deaths, or just in the backdrop of the landborne action. The simple competition between these two men drives the film, one a tall blonde muscular heroic type (Nikolai Kryuchkov) and the other and native Azeri (Lev Sverdlin), shorter and solidly-built — though hardly unattractive either (Soviet or not, this is still the movies). Their aims are of course noble, and when they fall out it’s over their lack of commitment to the collective (with a side order of trying to impugn the other in the eyes of Masha), but the rivalry remains that of two friends, and when the final decision is made, it reminds you that it’s not just the men’s feelings which are at stake.

By the Bluest of Seas film posterCREDITS
Director Boris Barnet Бори́с Ба́рнет; Writer Klimentiy Mints Климентий Минц; Cinematographer Mikhail Kirillov Михаи́л Кири́ллов; Starring Yelena Kuzmina Еле́на Кузьмина́, Nikolai Kryuchkov Николай Крючко́в, Lev Sverdlin Лев Све́рдлин; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 22 July 2020.

Bait (2019)

It’s another week where I suspect most of us are still stuck at home, and it’s looking like it’s going to stretch on. I’m taking a new tack with my themed weeks. Rather than focus on films I’ve seen on various online streaming services I’m already subscribed to (Netflix and Mubi in past weeks), I’m highlighting films available on other streaming services — or at least films for which I’ve not yet posted a review here. I’ll start with the BFI Player, which as a branch of an official national institute to support film and the moving image, has plenty of free programmes of largely archival and historical interest, many of which are fascinating. They also (for UK citizens) have a subscription service that seems like pretty good value (£5 a month, with a 14 day free trial period), as well as offering a range of straight rental titles (which as far as I can tell are separate from the ones available to subscribers). There’s also a special section of LGBTQI+ titles because the BFI Flare Film Festival was supposed to be finishing yesterday, but sadly was not able to go ahead. Some of the new films are being presented online, so maybe I’ll sign up for the free trial and review one or two of those if I can. In the meantime, here’s one of the big British success stories of last year.


The title Bait suggests a creature feature, and the way it looks suggests something with a real experimental edge (it reminded me a little of Rey, another recent film with a very textural and worn sense of film stock, despite being screened digitally). However, once you get over that initial shock, it’s actually an engaging drama. Still it’s quite a shock: there’s the obvious worn and scratchy black-and-white celluloid look but it’s combined with a very confrontational soundtrack in which all the sounds (of feet walking down the street, and the dialogue too) seem somehow abstracted and overlaid onto the image in a way that only heightens the constructedness of the enterprise. And then there’s the editing, which aggressively cross-cuts between different actions both at the same time and in the past/future, and the soundscapes, which constantly suggest the imminence of violence through scraping and dissonance. However, for all this, the drama remains focused on a small fishing village in Cornwall which is undergoing an unpleasant (and sadly, in our times, unavoidable) bout of gentrification. Our lead character Martin (Edward Rowe) has sold his family’s home to a posh couple with an utterly awful son (the daughter is less terrible), who’ve done it up and are letting out the loft to holidaymakers. At every stage, their sense of entitlement butts up against the traditions of the village and the family, a legacy of fishing and living off the sea, that Martin is desperately trying to maintain despite dwindling money. It’s a singular and fascinating film that really stands out thanks to its odd production, but it tells a classic story of precarity and gentrification that’s all too familiar.

Bait film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Mark Jenkin; Starring Edward Rowe, Mary Woodvine, Simon Shepherd, Giles King; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 30 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 42: Fishing with John (1991)

The Criterion Collection certainly throws up some oddities from time to time (who will ever forget — or forgive — Armageddon?) but Fishing with John is one of the odder entries, being the six episodes of a TV series made by John Lurie (hence the ‘creator’ rather than ‘director’ credit) and screened originally in 1991. It’s nominally a fishing show, in the sense that he takes a bunch of (male) celebrities out on the water in various places attempting to catch fish, but tonally it feels more of a piece with Twin Peaks or the offbeat deadpan stylings of early Jim Jarmusch (in whose films Lurie occasionally popped up, and who is his guest in the first episode). Things proceed in a laidback manner, as the two men travel to their fishing boat, or eat in cafes and drink in bars, and fall to chatting. Indeed, they tend to have very little success at the actual fishing. The conversations have a roundabout, somewhat surreal quality, but the most overt humour comes from the (extremely unreliable) narration, taking an omniscient viewpoint in the style of such shows, but undercutting it with deadpan drollery. In a sense, nothing much happens, but the journey is pleasantly diverting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Creator [Director] John Lurie; Cinematographers Michael Alan Spiller, Tom Krueger, James Nares and Steven Torton; Starring John Lurie, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch; Length 147 minutes (in six episodes of c24 minutes each).

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2015.