A work of great charm and bold aesthetic impurity, Agnès Varda’s Cinévardaphoto is a suite of documentary shorts. Taken as a whole, the movie goes back and forth in time, allowing this most fanciful of cine-essayists to explicate—largely through juxtaposition—the relationship between photography and memory, memory and artistic impulse.
The star of Ydessa, the Bears and Etc. . . . , the first (and only new) panel in Varda’s triptych, is the Toronto artist-curator Ydessa Hendeles, who collects vintage photographs of people clutching teddy bears. In a Munich museum, she creates an installation, covering the walls with these framed photos. It is, as Varda notes, the documentary fiction of a world wherein everyone is secure and happy (unlike Hendeles’s family, most of whom were killed during the Holocaust). Varda creates her own narrative out of the overstimulating exhibition, exhibiting her distinctive mix of whimsy and will by inserting her own childhood photo, sans teddy bear and hence “unjustified.”
In Ulysse, a 1982 short, the filmmaker returns to the 1954 photograph she made of a nude male model and a little boy standing on a beach, with a dead goat in the foreground. This Picassoid image evokes an entire milieu. Varda interviews the model as he is today (or rather was 20-odd years ago) and tracks down Ulysse, the grown child. He no longer remembers the photograph at all—only the painting he made of it, which Varda pasted up in her study. She recalls that the photo coincided with her preparations for her first film, as well as the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu—noting that none of this personal or public history can be found in the image.
The complications that define the presentness of the present set up the final short. Presented as “found,” Salut les Cubains (1963) is fashioned from photos that Varda shot in revolutionary Cuba and needs no comment to seem the excavation of a lost romantic world. Throughout, Varda creates performances out of snapshot sequences. In one, she animates the elderly song-and-dance man Benny More. Another series of frozen moments has the teenaged Sara Gomez, then an aspiring filmmaker, participating in a group cha-cha outside the Film Institute.
“Vivacious doings by people long dead,” as Ken Jacobs said of one of his films. Gomez would suffer a fatal asthmatic attack a few years later while working on her first feature. This haunting image of unfulfilled promise reflects back both on this ancient footage and on Varda’s entire project: wild exuberance, overwhelming sadness.