The first of many perfectly composed images in Du côté de la côte

MUBI currently has a small collection of short films by Agnès Varda available. I don’t watch shorts often. It’s not that I don’t like shorts as a format but more that I struggle for motivation. Whenever I do see them in a cinema programme I am usually pleasantly surprised. In the UK exhibitors have tried for years to re-establish short films during regular programmes without success.

A characteristic mix of the landscape plus classical statuary and an incongruous chimney

The shorts culture is strongest in European cinema for me and Agnès Varda is a good example of a filmmaker who can make the format work. Du côté de la côte is one of Varda’s early shorts. She agreed to a commission (one of two) from a tourist office to make a film about the Côte d’Azur. The film’s French title does not translate easily into English and therefore there have been several English language titles. IMDb offers ‘Coasting Along the Coast’ which, though a literal translation, seems a little silly. In my viewing records I found that I had seen a Varda short titled ‘Côte d’Azur’ at the Hampstead Everyman in 1974. I think this must be the same film. Varda had previously made a low budget film about a fishing community in Sète, further West along along the Mediterranean coast of France. She became very fond of the community in ‘La Pointe Corte’ which was the title of this, her first feature in 1955, and often quoted as a forerunner of the later Nouvelle Vague films. Varda was less enamoured of the Cote D’Azur, but she needed the money and she managed to turn the commission towards her own ways of dealing with images and ideas. The production also had the advantage of a budget to cover 35mm, Eastmancolor and a mix of voices for narration alongside a musical score by Georges Delerue, including popular songs. The restored print by Varda’s own company offered by MUBI is stunning and most enjoyable.

Yellow was the fashionable choice of tourists apparently. Like many of the compositions, this has its surprise – is that a swimmer in the background?

I think it would be good to screen this film for any group of aspiring young filmmakers. Varda crams in so many ideas, combining images, voiceover and music without ever losing a sense of rhythm or giving the feeling that she has lost control. The voice track shifts between male and female (Roger Coggio and Anne Olivier)and rather than dull travelogue, the pair produce a poetic commentary that revels in Varda’s witty use of language. History, sociology, architecture is combined with landscape, art and design, commercial signage for the travel business etc. There is celebrity culture and fashion and there are people in profusion, some asleep on the beach some filmed as if in hommage to silent cinema. The film is witty and sexy. Varda’s camera under the control of Quinto Albicocco and Raymond Castel certainly picks out the ‘pretty girls’ on the promenade and on the beach – but it also finds the occasional hairy male stomach and the bronzed male chest. MUBI labels the short with ‘Caution’, suggesting that it might not be suitable for children. I’m not quite sure why that is but the scenes of carnival are slightly disturbing – as they should be perhaps. The jostling crowds armed with paper bags full of confetti are determined to scatter it over each other (and push it into clothing) in a seeming frenzy. Is it exhilarating or frightening? Certainly when the night ends with the burning of a giant papier-mâché head it does seem like some kind of innocence has died – to be reborn.

One of the carnival heads burning at the end of the revels

I’m not sure what the Tourist Office made of the film but I’d argue that most people who see it would indeed want to visit the Côte d’Azur. The film has its moments of quiet reflection as well as its coverage of the crowds. Some of the best sequences picks out animals without humans. The whole film depends on editing and Varda is well-served by her editors Jasmine Chasney and Henri Colpi. Watching the film I was reminded of such classic films as Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) and Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955), which catch the glamour of coast as well as the later films from Truffaut, Godard and Varda’s partner Jacques Demy (La Baie des Anges, 1962). Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice (1928) is a film that covers much of the same material as Varda and I’m sure she must have studied it and reflected on what she could do with added colour.

Animals feature on their own

I can’t see any downsides to this film apart perhaps its length. Watching it is a bit like eating a plateful of delicious food and realising that you are stuffing yourself and perhaps eating too much. There is so much to enjoy in the film it’s difficult to digest all at once. I recommend multiple watches. Varda is one of the few major directors to have made many short films and I should watch more. French cinema defines three categories of film – short (court), medium (moyen) and  long métrage (feature film). The actual length of each of these varies and competitions like those at Cannes or the Academy Awards in Hollywood have different rules. I think this film is the upper end of ‘short’ at 27 minutes.

This film is available on the Agnès Varda collections of Blu-ray discs from Curzon Artificial Eye in the UK and, I think, Criterion in the US. All the images above are grabbed from the Artificial Eye Blu-ray.