Cinévardaphoto, Agnès Varda’s elegant troika of documentaries (at Film Forum), could be called In Search of Lost Time. Mining memory and history, it discovers what happens when, in Varda’s words, “photos trigger films.” Ydessa, the Bears and Etc…(2004) investigates curator Ydessa Hendeles’s exhibit of teddy bear photographs. In Ulysse (1982), Varda revisits a picture she took in 1954. Salut les Cubains (1963) brings to life 1,800 black-and-white photos Varda took in Cuba a few years after the revolution.
“This is like a non-film. It’s a film about images and thinking. The three films raise the question, How do we look at images?” says Varda. Often called the grandmother of the French new wave, she began as a photographer at 19. “I guess I thought the medium wasn’t enough; I thought I should make a film,” she explains. “I knew nothing about movies. I just had a desire to use sound and movement and words.”
Each part of the trilogy explores ways of seeing. “In Ydessa, I was impressed that Hendeles was not only the collector but the curator,” notes Varda. “She organized the way she wanted people to look at things. The film emphasizes the ability to manipulate the viewer.” Disquisitions on the vagaries and failings of memory recur in Cinévardaphoto. “Ulysse is the purest film of the three,” Varda says. “It’s one image, one inquiry. It is my desire to reach what could be behind or inside that photo. It can be a painful experience: to meet the boy [in the photo], who didn’t want to remember anything. That’s what happens when you make a film. You have to feel what’s happening; you have to film according to a vibration, not a screenplay.”
The “vibration” Varda felt in 1962 while filming Salut les Cubains was one of enormous optimism—now marked by rueful nostalgia. “There was a wonderful collective effort [in Cuba] at the time,” Varda explains. “And I was part of that; the film reflects that. [Now] everything is broken; hope is gone. Salut les Cubains shows how history moves and changes.”
Varda, 76, is constantly moving and changing too. “It keeps me alive to be a filmmaker; it keeps me questioning. Images and sound can still teach me something. I’m more or less healthy, I’m not totally dead, I hope I work a little more, and that’s it.”