Agnes Varda’s films are so simple, so deceivingly effortless flights of thought, that you could be forgiven for thinking she just sort of dashed them out of thin air over the course of an afternoon. Though she deals mostly in documentary, her documents are fiction, myth, and dreamlike, taking us on personal journeys that go beyond objective documentation; first and foremost, her work is about the subjective, either through her eyes or someone else’s.
Cinévardaphoto is a sweet collection of three shorts, and the title says it all: this is cinema about Varda and her photography. Each film is constructed around photos she has taken- a motion picture about still images, woven together by her narration. The longest, and newest, Ydessa, les ours et etc… is a film about a photography exhibition of found pictures all containing a teddy bear in some fashion. The exhibit both fascinated and frustrated Varda so much, she had to track down the artist who curated the show, meeting her in Toronto to find out more. Of course, there is more- her subject, Ydessa Hendeles, is an eccentric and unique creature whose own story taps into her parents’ lives as concentration camp survivors, as well as the roles of teddy bears in both Jewish and German cultures during WWII.
Salut les Cubains, by contrast, is a sweet and whimsical trip to Cuba in the early 60’s, when the hope of communism as salvation for this island country was high. Varda is clearly swept up by the romance of the times: the music, the women, the sugar, the beards, the politics. Told purely through the photographs she took (and the facts about Cuba she recounts) the film works both as an old skool informational documentary, the kind you might have watched in school at that time, and a personal essay. The photos almost come alive sometimes through Varda’s quick edits, bringing to mind Godard’s edgy visual style of that New Wave era. Though you have to place the film in its proper historical context, the film remains a testament to the spirit of people working together for the common good- a gentle contrast to anti-Castro films like Azucar Amarga.
My personal favorite of the three is Ulysse, this time focusing on a single photo only: one that Varda took decades ago on a beach involving a nude man, a boy, and a dead goat. She cleverly unwraps the layers of meaning found in the photo, revisiting both the man and the boy years later, as well as their families, to see the image through their eyes (and memories.) Surprise, surprise, memory plays a pivotal and tricky role here, turning this simple essay into a deep (but totally entertaining) meditation on what we choose (consciously or subconsciously) to retain and reject in that mess of spaghetti we call our brains.
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(This includes subtitle files and special introductions to each film by Agnes herself. The subtitles to Ulysse are a little wonky and disappear partway through, but even if you don’t speak French, the main subject and a few others speak English- between that and the visuals, you will understand!)