Dig If You Will The Picture

Filmmaker Agnès Varda reads a lot into her work

Filmmaker Agnès Varda is a self-described gleaner. Where the occupation of "movie director" seems to suggest "stager of slave uprisings in Cinemascope," Varda prefers instead to walk the entire length of a parking lot to track down a single rain-battered Polaroid blowing in the wind. Like the magazine Found, elegized in these pages by Melissa Maerz, Varda is viscerally and sentimentally drawn to human artifacts that, cut off from their contexts, resemble tiles from a fresco depicting a long-dead empire. The white-elephantine subject matter of the Major Moviemaker is not for her; instead, she trains her spyglass on the human idiosyncrasy contained in errata, found-object debris, the dandruff of advanced civilizations. Rather than spanning her gaze wide to encompass war, sex, and tragicomic family reunions, Varda insists rigidly upon staring at a space two inches from the tip of her nose. Her perfectly practical belief is that a narrow canvas can be penetrated to staggering depths--which is precisely the outcome of her almost painfully exquisite new movie Cinévardaphoto.

Well, two-thirds of it is exquisite; the last of its three sections, titled "Salut les Cubains (What's Up Cubans?)", pools together a vast catalog of snapshots of everyday sensuality in 1963 Cuba. For fans of I Am Cuba and Before Night Falls, "Salut" is an orgy: For a full half-hour, to an insinuating rhumba beat, Varda keeps the holiday photos coming at us so fast and furious that eye and brain come close to the breaking point. (If you don't spend some of the running time closing your eyes, "Salut" can give you the whim-whams.) Maybe the problem with "Salut" is that it isn't the work of a gleaner, but rather that of an attempted high-pressure shuck-and-jive artist.

Grin and bear it: Ydessa Hendeles in 'Cinévardaphoto'
Ciné-tamaris
Grin and bear it: Ydessa Hendeles in 'Cinévardaphoto'

The focus in the other two shorts that make up Cinévardaphoto, however, is perfectly contained. "Ulysse" is sphinxlike, elegantly just out of reach, and "Ydessa, les ours, et etc." clutches at a slight conceit to gather breathtaking insights. "Ydessa" surely constitutes a high watermark in the 78-year-old Varda's development as an artist. The only movie I can think of that uses careworn found images with as much devilish fire and invention is Orson Welles's Skid Row masterpiece F for Fake.

Ydessa Hendeles is a posh art curator with punk-rock flame-red hair and a penchant for shroudlike black dresses; she speaks in the precious, punctilious style that denotes pseudos the world over. Her large-scale art project--"The Teddy Project," a gathering of (seemingly) each and every photo on earth that depicts a teddy bear--feels at first like the preoccupation of a well-to-do daddy's girl. Varda, in voiceover, speaks with extravagant affection of Ydessa, and the filmmaker's camera swirls through Ydessa's gallery space like a cheapjack digital-video version of the eye that prowled through marble corridors in Last Year at Marienbad. (Varda somehow achieves voluptuous, Kubrickian tracking shots with the clunkiest of video cameras--a laudable first.) Girls at the beach clutch teddies; Russian boys shipping out for the Great War place them piously in family-portrait compositions; and children clutch at them, as if the teddies were their children, even when the beloved animal now lacks an eye, a mouth, half his stuffing. Gallery-goers speak of their dizziness and fatigue: Ydessa stacks a warehouse with teddy photos 20 feet high. They stack up on each other, indigestible, unapproachable, like the three-high canvases at the Louvre or...the bodies in a mass grave?

Varda's tone, as filmmaker and narrator, is gentle, grandmotherly, coaxing, at every moment compassionate. This is why she's uniquely able to deliver the deathblow that is the segment's lasting accomplishment. Ydessa's teddies, we come to understand, are a tenderhearted inverse of the 20th century's most lasting invention: death-as-factory, the indexed, vertically organized mass production of murder. I won't give away how the teddies' subtext manifests itself; but when it does, Varda plunges us into the singularity of the children in the photographs. Their distance, whether they are lost to us by age or more sinister means, becomes an inconsolable loss. The innocence we see in the faces of the kids gladdened by the teddies becomes a precious resource that we feel the need to protect. Ydessa's bear-loving family of ghosts vacates us for good. We come to feel haunted by the photo subjects' there but no longer there qualities--turning "Ydessa" into not just an uncommonly lithe and subtle Holocaust allegory, but a perfect summary of the nature of movies themselves.

In "Ulysse," Varda has even less to work with: a single stark photo she took decades before. In it, a beautiful, wraithlike man stands on a stark yet lush beach out of Picasso. Near him, a small boy gazes at the sea; and, closest to you, a wide-eyed, big-toothed goat decomposes into the briny sand. Who were these people? What was the photo "about"? Varda investigates--not by looking for expert testimony, but, instead, for its opposite. Children stare at the picture and are shocked and delighted by the unlikeliest things--discovering, for example, that the goat is dead, not sleeping. Seaside folk are quizzed as to what the melancholy man might have been thinking and a goat is asked to comment upon the deceased animal, whereupon he utterly upends Varda's conceit by slowly munching the photo. (Varda describes him as exercising his "imangination," a pun that poorly translates as "exercising his eat-magination.") "I think of the three figures as kind of like the Sphinx's riddle, the three ages of man," Varda opines--but even this elegant summary isn't enough to capture the lush foliage of possibility held in this long-lost photo's seemingly shallow depths.

Cinévardaphoto, then, finally celebrates not picture-taking or moviemaking so much as the erotics of interpretation. What Varda finds hot is reading--or maybe, as we say, "reading into." We as spectators imprint our own griefs, obsessions, and neurotic twitches into material where they didn't previously exist. Could this be why Varda is a critics' favorite--because she so valorizes turning the object under scrutiny into an object of desire? I don't know if I agree with any of her takes on Cinévardaphoto's photos. What matters is that she turns the process of looking into a carnal idyll.

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