Du côté de la côte (1958) is easily dismissed as a frothy travelogue; Agnès Varda herself refers to its “touristy” images (1). Like her previous short, Ô Saisons, Ô Châteaux (1958), it was commissioned by the French Tourist Office (2) and uses exquisite cinematography in bright primary colours to conjure a hyper-real vision of the Côte d’Azur. The narration tells us from the start that the film’s subject will not be the local populations of Antibes, Beaulieu, Cannes, Cap Ferret, Fréjus, Menton, Nice, Ramatuelle, Saint-Tropez or Toulon, but the “crowd” of tourists that invades the south every year to worship the sun, and literally squeeze into the frame as they take up all available space on the beaches. So, like all good travel agency-produced promos, Du côté de la côte presents endless sun and blue skies; informative statistics and potted history lessons; ravishing views of natural and man-made wonders; and things to do, from sunbathing and shopping to visiting museums and cemeteries. The credit sequence is illustrated by vintage travel posters; and all is set to Georges Delerue’s glorious Mediterranean muzak.
The most common place name on the Côte d’Azur is “Eden”. Varda presents a dazzling paradise on earth, but the film’s tone gradually darkens, even if its individual images do not. The notion of Eden is questioned in two climactic sequences. In the first, Eden is presented as a rocky island at the confluence of sun and sea, where plant life is parched, and horses frolic. But there is evidence of recent human activity – a horse pulls a riderless carriage; agricultural implements rust in the sun; two towels and pairs of flip-flops (thongs) lie abandoned on the beach.
Has the island been abandoned after some unnamed catastrophe? A nuclear explosion, perhaps? At the time of the film’s making, the US and its allies were testing atomic weapons on similar idylls in the Pacific Ocean, having nuked Japan into submission at the end of the last world war. Some of the editing and the use of switch pans in Du côté de la côte – particularly in the sequence preceding this one, where the burning of a papier-mâché effigy is cross-cut with the sun emerging at dawn – have an almost apocalyptic feel to them.
This is probably over-burdening a witty trifle with portentous meaning that was never intended: or reimagining it with the hindsight of a singular moment in its exhibition history. On 14 June 1959, Du côté de la côte opened for one of the most important of all films, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (3). The high seriousness of this modernist trailblazer – and that of Resnais’ previous shorts, which dealt with such sombre themes as colonialism, the Spanish Civil War and the Holocaust – seems worlds away from the bright surfaces and bronzed beach bums of Varda’s film. Varda was an old ally of Resnais’, a member of the same informal Left Bank Group as their sometime collaborator Chris Marker and Varda’s future husband Jacques Demy. Resnais was one of the editors of Varda’s debut feature, La Pointe Courte (1955), an important forerunner of the nouvelle vague. It is probably just a coincidence that Resnais’ next and last short, Le Chant du styrène (1959), revels in the same eye-popping colours and whimsical narration of Du côté de la côte. Even so, the status of the latter as nonfiction would have strengthened the documentary effect of Hiroshima mon amour’s first reel, while Varda’s alternating, incantatory male and female narrators carry over into Resnais’ film. Would it be patronising to suggest that Du côté de la côte was billed to “sugar the pill” of Hiroshima mon amour, preparing audiences for that film’s formal ruptures by presenting similar experiments in a light and playful manner?
Hiroshima mon amour is not the first modernist classic Du côté de la côte relates to. For lovers of French cinema, the representation of the French Riviera is inextricably associated with Jean Vigo and Boris Kaufman’s À propos de Nice (1930); a film that screened with La Pointe Courte when it was released in 1956. Du côté de la côte can be seen as a reworking of Vigo’s classic, a not uncommon procedure in the 1950s, when colour remakes of black-and-white films proliferated. Both shorts begin with dolls, as if to emphasise the dehumanising effect of wealth and modern tourism; both include lengthy sequences in cemeteries and the carnival of out-sized papier-mâché figures and scantily clad dancers; both Varda and Vigo were heavily influenced by Surrealism, and adopt various tactics associated with that movement (two wonderful shots in Du côté de la côte influenced by the game of the “exquisite corpse” give bathing beauties the heads of an infant and a dog) (4).
But such similarities only serve to highlight the stark differences between Du côté de la côte and À propos de Nice. Where Varda the professional photographer seems to treat the Riviera as the backdrop for a fashion shoot – with beautiful women modelling the latest hats, sunglasses and beachwear – Vigo’s vision is febrile and savage, contrasting wealthy old grotesques on the promenades with deformed children in unhygienic slums. Vigo’s filming and editing of the carnival sequence results in a hypnotic bacchanalia, an ironic Götterdämmerung. Varda’s montage of the same event is not quite so aggressive but taps into deeper pagan energies. Throughout the short – where the names of towns are recited by the female narrator in an incantatory monotone – Varda insists on the presence of the brutal pagan past in the sleekly modern present, and links the Riviera’s role in the creation of modern celebrity culture with ancient sacrificial rites and the cycles of nature. Varda asserts a non-hierarchical equivalence of nature, animals, objects and humans. Where Vigo seems to sneer at the wealthy specimens under his microscope, Varda at most gently jokes at the potbellied sunbathers, their burnt flesh and woollen trunks. More often she ennobles these French vacationers by framing them as ancient chiefs.
Where Varda proves herself a true heir of Jean Vigo is in her devastating closing sequence where, pointedly, the previously dominant male narrator gives way to the female. “Eden”, portrayed anxiously as almost devoid of human presence, is compared to the “False Eden” of the Riviera, with its over-tended gardens in private properties. A film that is structured by montages of discrete motifs – beaches, ruins, trees, markets, parasols, hotels – closes with images of gates locking us out. Where the traditional travelogue invites the prospective tourist to step through the screen from the urban everyday into festival fantasy, Du côté de la côte reminds us of the barrier between viewer, screen and the seductive paradise, and insists on the political reality elided by the tourist and celebrity industries.
1. Agnès Varda, “Introduction to Du côté de la côte’, Varda Tous Courts, DVD, Ciné-Tamaris, Paris, 2007. Du côté de la côte is classed under “Courts ‘touristiques’” on this set.
3. See the Booklet in Varda Touts Courts,DVD, p. 5.
4. In the “exquisite corpse” (cadavre exquise), two or more participants create hybrid forms by adding to an initial drawing that is hidden from them.
Du côté de la côte (1958 France 24 mins)
Prod Co: Argos-Films Prod: Anatole Dauman, Philippe Lifchitz Dir, Scr: Agnès Varda Phot: Quinto Albicocco, Raymond Castel Ed: Henri Colpi, Jasmine Chasney Mus: Georges Delerue