PRINT April 2005


James Quandt on Cinévardaphoto

THE COBBLED QUALITY of Agnès Varda’s latest film, a suite assembled from three shorts, is belied by its cunning design. Structured as a kind of reverse retrospective, Cinévardaphoto—in limited release nationally—begins with her latest work, Ydessa, the Bears and Etc. . . . (2004), and travels backward in two-decade leaps to Ulysse (1982) and, finally, Salut les Cubains (1963). The portmanteau approach may be more pragmatic than poetic—film distribution renders any short film an instant orphan—but the wily Varda turns necessity into conceptual invention. Her triptych offers three variations on the theme of photography and memory—memory that is, respectively, collective and historical, private and enigmatic, idealistic and errant. Despite their divergent aesthetic approaches, which range from Ydessa’s free-form digital video in swimmy color to the flip-book montage that animates a series of black-and-white stills in Salut, the three films achieve dense, sometimes unwilled coherence.

Ydessa might be seen as a continuation of Varda’s last feature, The Gleaners and I (2000), in which she explored the many meanings of gleaning, including its depiction in painting. (It’s worth remembering that Varda studied art history at the Ecole du Louvre.) One assumes Toronto curator and collector Ydessa Hendeles fascinated Varda in part because she is a gleaner supreme. For her “Partners” installation, which Varda encountered in Munich’s Haus der Kunst, infamous site of the Nazis’ 1937 exhibition of Völkish Third Reich art, Hendeles spent arduous hours at auctions, on eBay, and elsewhere collecting three thousand vintage photographs of people and teddy bears, which she then mounted in close-packed floor-to-ceiling grids and added, in an adjacent room, Maurizio Cattelan’s kneeling Hitler (Him, 2001). In a curatorial coup, the photographs’ embracing sense of talismanic protection is suddenly, retroactively transformed by the diminutive Hitler into hapless fiction.

Assuming the lightly ironic, inquisitive tone she used to great effect in Gleaners, Varda analyzes several of the photographs like a rue Daguerre semiotician, with glancing wit and insight, alighting on telling details and little accidents, and she makes a suggestive comparison between the grid of black-framed photos and urns in a columbarium. But the allusiveness of “Partners,” its shattering accumulation of contending emotions and themes—innocence and conformity, false security, historical trauma and the impossibility of contrition—are sadly scanted, reduced to individual psychodrama by Varda’s isolation of the photographs from their context and by her glib portrayal of Hendeles as a goth neurotic, the daughter of Holocaust survivors obsessively constructing worlds into which she can withdraw.

Varda’s Proustian musings about the evanescence of childhood and fading of photographs in Ydessa, and her quarrying of various images in Hendeles’s installation, serve as a transition to the middle, and best, panel of Cinévardaphoto. Ulysse is a small masterpiece, a world of loss and unspoken sorrow conjured from one enigmatic photograph. Varda returns to a picture she took in 1954, a still life constructed from two naked males—frame left, a man with his back to us, looking out to sea; in the middle, an unhappy boy sitting amid stones—and the splayed corpse of a goat. Almost three decades later, she tracks down the two men, questions them about their memory of the photograph and their lives since posing for it. Refusing to remember, or recollecting obliquely, selectively, the men shrug off the past as indistinct, frustrating Varda’s attempts to fill in the story since the initial “narrative,” with its maritime evocation of myth (a boy called Ulysses!) and art references (Picasso especially but also Cocteau). Instead, Varda’s own memories—of making her first film, La Pointe Courte (1954), whose music she redeploys in Ulysse; of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu; or of the death of Colette—eddy around the image, suggesting perhaps that memory is ineluctable for the artist but not for her subjects, whose former selves seem to them like distant, irretrievable fictions.

The idealized images of Salut les Cubains return us to the historical, collective dimension of memory explored in Ydessa, but with more naïveté than nuance. In Salut, Varda gleaned from the thousands of photos she snapped on a trip through revolutionary Cuba those that lionize the country, its artists in particular, and “animated” them with a rapid, rhythmic montage. (Her companion on the trip, Chris Marker, had more or less invented the narrative-from-stills mode the previous year with La Jetée and had also made a salute to the country, Cuba Sí! [1961].) After the complexities of Ulysse, Salut provides an attenuated coda, its festive, tropicalist tone shadowed by death—of some of the people in the photos, of youthful idealism and political fervor.

In The Gleaners and I, Varda paid fond tribute to Etienne-Jules Marey, the nineteenth-century visionary whom she considers the progenitor of cinema. Marey’s famous chronophotographe, its very name suggesting captured time, combined principles of movement and fixity, much as Cinévardaphoto does. In the title, Varda places her name between the arts that have defined her career for over half a century (she was the official photographer for the Théâtre National Populaire before she began making films). The interrelation or imbrication of photography and cinema, the stasis of one and motion of the other, is a central motif in Cinévardaphoto, where it becomes synonymous with the workings of memory. More than most, Varda seems to recognize that cinema is, after all, moving pictures—and that memory, like documentary, is inseparable from fiction.

James Quandt is senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto.