Agnès Varda’s legend began with a $14,000 budget and a burst of spontaneity.
“She didn’t follow any rules,” says Jennifer Jones, one half of the Portland-based Varda awareness project Agnés Varda Forever. “She said, ‘I’ve seen maybe 10 movies in my whole life, and I think I can do it better.’ She didn’t take a class, didn’t read a book; she just did it.”
Varda was a 26-year-old photographer when she toted a camera to La Pointe Courte (a neighborhood in Sète, a port city in the South of France). There, she wrangled mostly nonactors, fearlessly juxtaposed formalism and docurealism, and voilá—say many film historians—the French New Wave was born.
According to this (slightly simplified) narrative, Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955) arrived suddenly, much like the mother-to-child slap that marks the film’s halfway point. That’ll be the intermission and changeover point when Portland rock stalwarts Erika M. Anderson and Kathy Foster live-score La Pointe Courte on Oct. 23 at Holocene. Anderson will perform the film’s first half, while Foster (longtime bassist for the Thermals and the current bandleader of Roseblood) will tackle the marginally more bombastic second half with Decemberists drummer Rachel Blumberg (whose current endeavors include Califone and Arch Cape).
The musicians have had to reckon with the sparse 80-minute film’s complexity. Throughout the story, Varda juxtaposes the labors and traditions of La Pointe Courte with a snaking co-plot focused on two lovers deciding whether to part ways.
“It’s a singular vision,” Anderson says, “almost like looking at something from above. If you get in there and add melodramatic stuff, it’s not going to work.”
“You could go anywhere with it,” Foster adds. “As I’m watching it, there are very nuanced changes in mood.”
Foster and Anderson’s efforts will be the latest installment of Fin de Cinema, a live-scoring film series curated by Holocene’s Gina Altamura since 2009, which has enlisted Portland artists to set their compositions to the works of Tarkovsky, Jodorowsky and others.
La Pointe Courte is a joint production with Holocene, POW Film Festival and Agnès Varda Forever, which began as a much-noticed poster campaign in spring 2021. But as of their Varda film festival last August at the Clinton Street Theater, Portland artists Jones and Laura Glazer’s collaboration has graduated from Portland’s telephone poles to its movie screens.
Unlike the silent-film staples often selected for live scoring, Fin de Cinema tends to curate more daring international films from the sound era. The original score and dialogue are silenced while the audience soaks in the musicians’ reinterpretations, which are set to subtitles (also, with its four projection screens, Holocene will show La Pointe Courte at all angles throughout the venue).
“It’s always Nosferatu or The Red Balloon,” says Altamura of films typically scored live. “And those are cool, don’t get me wrong! But I thought, how cool would it be to do something a little more rock ‘n’ roll, adventurous and technicolor?”
While the slice-of-life narrative of the black-and-white La Pointe Courte doesn’t automatically suggest rock ‘n’ roll, Foster and Anderson are keeping all options open. Foster says she’s been rewatching the film while jamming on guitar, trying to follow the tenor of the two lovers’ verbose dialogues. Meanwhile, Anderson says she’s considering some flute or woodwind sounds on her synth, inspired by the film’s original Pierre Barbaud score—although there’s no guarantee that is what audiences will hear Oct. 23.
Far more certain is a glimpse into Varda’s early brilliance. In a career that spanned 65 years—from Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) to The Gleaners and I (2000) to an Oscar nomination for Faces Places (2017)—Varda demonstrated formal agnosticism and a distinct voice from the beginning. One moment, La Pointe Courte focuses on the floridly conversant lovers draping themselves in poetic ennui. Then, just over their shoulders, a local cat takes a deep, conspicuous stretch, as if to say our personal dramas may feel all-consuming to us, but the wider world may yawn comically.
“Agnès was so good at giving everyday people an opportunity to narrate the world,” Glazer says. “I think our poster project is part of that, honoring and celebrating someone who would pay attention to strangers.”
Foster puts the pioneering early achievement of the French director and the half-dozen Portland women hosting this show more simply: “It’s all very radical and punk.”
SEE IT: La Pointe Courte plays at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., 503-239-7639, holocene.org. 9 pm Sunday, Oct. 23. $13. 21+.