Picture Book: Agnès Varda’s Cinevardaphoto
by Erik Syngle with responses by Michael Joshua Rowin and Michael Koresky
[indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot.]
Though she is arguably the greatest female filmmaker of all time, Agnès Varda is unlikely to ever collect any awards to that effect because, unlike many better-known women auteurs, Varda has never seemed interested in restricting herself to being merely a “woman director.” Which is not to say that a distinctly feminine — and occasionally feminist — sensibility cannot be traced throughout her 50-year career, in such films as “L’Opéra Mouffe” (1958), “Cléo from 5 to 7” (1961), “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (1977), and “Kung-Fu Master” (1987). But there are many other Vardas as well: Varda the pioneering French independent whose first feature (1956’s “La Pointe courte”) predates those of her Left Bank and Nouvelle Vague comrades; the radical and experimental Varda of “Black Panthers” (1968) and “Lions, Love… and Lies” (1969); the biographer and eulogist for her late husband Jacques Demy in a series of features and documentaries in the Nineties; and the fantasist-historian of the neglected “A Hundred and One Nights” (1995).
Before there were any of these cinematic Vardas, however, there was Varda the photographer, and it’s to this earliest incarnation of herself that she returns with her latest project, a compilation given the Godardian portmanteau title “Cinevardaphoto.” Everything you need to know is right there in that title, from its three-part structure to the principal subjects, and it’s characteristic of her personal yet modest directorial temperament that she chose to include her own name but hide it in the middle. Comprised of three short films made decades apart and all dealing in some way with still photography (and her professional origins as a photographer) they also wind up covering most of her filmmaking years while proceeding chronologically backwards. First comes “Ydessa, the Bears, and etc.,” which is the longest and only new work, followed by “Ulysses” (1982) and “Salut les cubains” (1963). Aesthetically they can be seen to travel “backwards” as well, beginning with a video piece, then a color film, and finally a black-and-white film made up entirely of still images.
Ydessa finds Varda still firmly in the mode of her celebrated “The Gleaners and I” (2000), very much at home with the DV essay format and as poetically sharp and witty as ever. This time she’s found another eccentric gleaner of sorts (or at least a collector), the Canadian artist Ydessa Hendeles whose installation in Munich features a gallery with hundreds of “found” historical photographs — all containing a Teddy Bear. The film is partly a document of that exhibit — and its visitors — and partly a study of the fascinatingly freakish Hendeles (who looks uncannily like a character by Henry Selick or Edward Gorey), whom Varda tracks down at her gallery in Toronto. In her typically understated way, she acknowledges Hendeles’s unbearable pretentiousness in person (“She talks the art game well”) — probably about as opposite to Varda as anyone could be — without detracting from the fascination of the project. But the question that nagged me more than any other: Is Hendeles aware that one of her photos is a still from “Brideshead Revisited”?
For “Ulysses,” Varda grants herself the unusual screen credit of cinécrit, but the écriture in question is actually the titular photograph she took on a beach in 1954. She tracks down two of her three former models (the third is a dead goat) to find out if the picture still means as much to them as it does to her, only to discover they have no memory of it at all. This leads to Proustian ruminations on the succession of selves and the mystery of images. Viewing another photo of himself from the same period, her model says, “I remember the jacket, but I don’t remember the person.” Frustrated in her attempts to understand its hold on her, she digs through the records of that period in history and her life, until ultimately the picture seems to be about everything except what’s in it.
In her 2004 notes for “Salut les cubains,” Varda stresses “WE MUST REPLACE THIS DOCUMENTARY IN THE CONTEXT OF 1962,” and that may apply to the film’s technique as much as to its enthusiasm for Cuban socialism. No doubt influenced by that year’s “La Jetée” (whose director, Chris Marker, also accompanied her on the trip), Varda animates some 1800 stills she shot in Cuba with lively Latin music and voiceover by Michel Piccoli. Though not nearly as inventive as Marker in using photographs to distill scenes to their graphic essence, Varda does make the images dance in an entertaining propagandistic travelogue. But for the viewer, perhaps what connects these three films more than their concern with photography is Varda’s authorial voice, always sly and mysterious, revealing herself to the audience no matter what the ostensible subject. While they may not add up to a totally satisfying feature or coherent statement, it’s certainly more interesting to see the pieces in this context as well as a reminder that most of the French filmmakers of her generation were also prolific short-makers and would be well served by similar such collections.
[Erik Syngle is a co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, and has also written for Film Comment. He is currently working as an undercover cinephile in an undisclosed location.]
Take 2 by Michael Joshua Rowin
Rare is the compilation film that brings together a filmmaker’s disparate works to create a representative artistic statement. In the case of “Cinevardaphoto,” such a rarity allows viewers to marvel at the career progression of Varda, one of the most underappreciated alumni of the French New Wave. From the new “Ydessa, the Bears, and Etc.” to “Ulysses” to “Salut les Cubains,” the entire triptych shows Varda’s documentary work echoing, at various moments, the digressive cine-essays of Marker, the critical examinations of Godard, and the autobiographical experimentation of Akerman. But beyond these comparisons, it reveals a consistent yet absolutely unique voice spanning a 40-year period of photography and nonfiction filmmaking.
Varda continually returns to the impenetrable surface of the photographic image. Both “Ydessa” and “Ulysses” discover a subject’s complexity under layers of meaning, intended or unintended, initially obscured by the visceral impact of aesthetic beauty and fascination. Through Varda’s lens Ydessa Hendeles’s seemingly taxonomic 2004 exhibition of old portraits of teddy bears and their owners becomes a profound humanist meditation on collective memory, the Holocaust, and the melancholic encounter with the recorded past. And just as Varda questioned her sense of identity with the onset of age in 2000’s “The Gleaners and I,” “Ulysses”‘ subjects’ “self-predatory memories” prevent recognition of their past selves in an early photo by the filmmaker. Varda profoundly considers the ephemeral nature of identity and history by narrating a world around a photo while simultaneously questioning its inability to precisely convey this world. A scene in which Varda uncondescendingly asks schoolchildren for their reactions to her photo perfectly illustrates her documentary approach of playfulness mixed with inquisitiveness.
Most likely inspired by Marker’s “La Jetée,” “Salut les cubains”‘ animation of nearly 2,000 still photos of Cuba’s post-revolution exuberance exemplifies the New Wave’s early Sixties pop approach to politics and filmmaking. Clearly a less dialectical, more naïve antecedent to Varda’s more mature documentary work, “Salut les cubains” nonetheless provides glorious testament to a time of unsurpassed cinematic optimism.
[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot, has written for the Indypendent, Film Comment, and runs the blog, Hopeless Abandon.]
Take 3 by Michael Koresky
Though “Cinevardaphoto” moves backwards in time, literally, from 2004 to 1963, (and even to 1954, when Varda took the “Ulysses” photograph), her opening segment remains the triptych’s spiritual advisor and resident haunt. “Ydessa, the Bears, and Etc.,” with its unassuming ruminations on collective memory, both social and political, ennobles its eccentric subject as much as it keeps a safe distance. Varda somewhat truncates Ydessa Hendeles’s brilliantly curated exhibit in Munich by displaying only 3 out of the 10 rooms in her museum. Entitled “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project),” the seemingly endless rows of collected photographs of disparate groups of people with their teddy bears begins as an innocuous, even adorable invocation of both a bygone innocence and a pointed nostalgia. Not merely black-and-white snapshots of turn-of-the-century infants clutching their stuffed animals, Hendeles presents teddy bears as being watchful, hidden members of a civilization, peering from the corners of images captured within the bedrooms of naked women as well as the frontlines of WWI. Yet Varda edits her images in a way so as to allow the exhibit to work its macabre magic: Hendeles’s appearance, dressed in gothic long black dresses, metallic claw-like rings on her fingers, and endowed with a crooked jawbone and piercing eyes, augurs something far more ominous.
Varda withholds revealing the crucial third room until rather far into her 44-minute short; upon exiting the hall of teddy bears, one is forced to come upon a bare room, a kneeling figure in the direct center of the floor, its back facing you as you walk towards it. Once you recognize it as a statue of Hitler, its face contorted in its perverse prayer, there is nowhere to go but back to the (now false) comfort of the teddy bear rooms. Hendeles, the daughter of Auschwitz survivors, renegotiates history and personal life as a series of heartbreaking compromises. Varda not only deserves credit for bringing this exhibit to a wider audience but for allowing Hendeles’s point-of-view to forebode upon the rest of her film. Her next two shorts presented here, “Ulysses” and “Salut les cubains,” question individual and political history through the inexorable march of time. (The fact of the latter’s very presentation here calls the film into question; these broad, joyous pictures are certainly not the images of post-socialist Cuba we have come to recognize). And like Hendeles, Varda enriches her own career by pairing seemingly incongruous things. As she narrates in “Ydessa…”: “What remains after this maelstrom of images? A few images.” Hopefully Varda will continue to find new ways of seeing herself and us.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]