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French filmmaker Agnès Varda's work becomes more entrancing as one sees more of her smaller films. Cleo from 5 to 7 and the films in the collection 4 by Agnès Varda constitute her best-known feature work, but Cinévardaphoto, a trio of short films made between 1963 and 2004, is a fascinating study of the power of photographic art, and the mindset of the artist. Ms. Varda narrates all three of the films, sometimes aided by actor Michel Piccoli. Collected under one title in 2004, Cinévardaphoto has been released by Cinema Guild in a quality presentation, with extras.
Ydessa, The Bears and Etc. (Ydessa, les ours et etc...) is a 35mm/digital video production from 2004. It initially seems little more than a peek at an eccentric photographic exhibition in Munich, a collection of more than a thousand found photographs of children and people with Teddy Bears. We meet the artist Ydessa Handeles, an apparently wealthy woman with all the earmarks of the art scene -- an arresting hairstyle, distinctive clothing. But Varda soon reveals the exhibit's power. Handeles is the daughter of Jews that narrowly escaped the holocaust. She's spent years buying vintage "Teddy Bear" photos and arranging them by interior theme. Inspired by a cousin that died at Auschwitz, the bears represent the emotional connections between people, and the cumulative effect of the exhibit, in Ydessa's words, "explores world memory". The film eventually reveals the contents of a nearly empty room in the exhibit, which changes the meaning of everything the visitor has just experienced. At this point Varda shows more disturbing photos, of Nazi children posing with bears that salute, framed in special mountings decorated with swastikas. We've all suffered art exhibitions without any particular focus, or ones that flaunt pretentions to importance. Ydessa, The Bears and Etc. fully expresses the depth of this exhibit, in conjunction with a thoughtful portrait of its creator.
1982's Ulysses (Ulysse) is Varda's analysis of a photo she took in 1954. It's an art photo of a nude man and boy on a Normandy beach, with the corpse of a goat in the foreground. The picture is very good in itself, what with the poses of the models and the boy's odd gaze in the direction of the dead animal. But in 22 brisk minutes Varda reaches back in time to investigate what might have influenced the photo. She finds the adult that posed as the boy, and whose name is indeed Ulysse; he remembers little of the experience. Varda mostly recalls contextual markers -- the boy's family were political refugees from Spain, and she was very taken with them. A big French defeat in Vietnam was news at the time. She even studies goats a bit, to the extent of confronting one with her image of its kin; the goat naturally tries to eat the photo.
Hi There, Cubanos (Salut les Cubains) is the oldest of the three films, although its photographic subject is the newest -- the tenth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Agnès Varda returned from that island with thousands of photos and turned them into a straight cinema essay. The only live action seen is of a group of Cuban musicians visiting Paris. In a freewheeling editorial montage Varda shows the new face of Cuba, discussing only briefly the redistribution of land and the revolutionary fervor sparked by the charismatic figure of Fidel Castro. She makes fun of the new trend in beards and shows city teens volunteering to teach ABC's in the mostly illiterate countryside. Much of the film is about Cuban artists, and we see a selection of painters and poets in addition to musicians like Benny Moré. Varda even finds a young Cuban filmmaker, a woman, to focus on. Some passages edit stills of Moré and others so quickly that they seem like stop-motion live-action. Director Chris Marker is credited with help on the film and we can't but wonder if the technique is related to his own La jeteé of the same year.
Cinema Guild's DVD of Cinévardaphoto is a very attractive set of films, beautifully transferred. Varda kept hold of her work under her company name Ciné Tamaris. All were filmed in 35mm and are in fine shape.
The package is enhanced with a selection of six Agnès Varda short films that prove her a master of the form, and reveal more of her personal interests and commitments:
T'as de beaux escaliers tu sais (You've Got Beautiful Stairs, You Know) is a promotional film for the Cinémathèque Française that uses the simple gimmick of comparing the building's stairs with scenes from famous movies set on stairs. Plus, Isabelle Adjani makes a brief cameo.
Plaisir d'amour en Iran (Pleasure of Love in Iran) is a pleasant trifle that relates the beautiful architecture in an Iranian palace to the desires of a pair of lovers, who exchange their thoughts while touring.
7p., cuis., s. de b., ... à saisir (Seven Rooms, Kitchen and Bath) is a strange fantasy about an empty home for the elderly. Varda stages a fantasy of a family occupying the massive spaces, going through typical domestic problems. Ghosts of former occupants make comments from the dark corners. The notes suggest that the film was suggested simply by a visit to the empty building.
Réponse de femmes: Notre corps, notre sexe (Women Respond: Our Bodies, our Sex) is a brief (8 min) "cine-tract" with posed women reciting the logic behind their feminist ideals: What does it mean to be a woman? They're resentful of sexual objectification in both love relationships and in commercial exploitation: "I am unique but I represent all women". If this new consciousness gets in the way of male ideas about love, then "love must be reinvented". This is the most succinct and effective presentation of feminist ideas that I've seen.
Les dites cariatides (The So-Called Caryatids) plays with the same ideas, a bit, in architecture, as Varda examines some Caryatids (statues used as pillars) around Paris. While we hear readings of Baudelaire, we're told that many of these gigantic nude female statues are just ignored; nobody even remembers who made them.
Elsa la Rose (Elsa the Rose). Agnès Varda was invited to make this enchanting document, a love-poem film from the poet-novelist Louis Aragon to his beloved wife Elsa Triolet. The couple are seen moving about Paris and together in their rooms, and reflect on their memories of love. Very touching.
Also included is a bonus film, From the Rooster to the Donkey (Hands and Objects), an overview of Varda's short films that benefits from her thoughtful narration. Alain Bergala contributes some brief notes for an insert program.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.