Curator Ydessa Hendeles, who organized a Munich art show of photos of teddy bears, says “between reality and fiction, I’m somewhere in there.”
Hendeles is the subject of Agnés Varda’s most recent short film, “Ydessa, the Bears and Etc.,” and her words suit the slipperiness of Varda’s work.
Generally considered the French New Wave’s only female director, Varda made her first feature in 1955, four years before most of her male counterparts. Her oeuvre is admittedly uneven, containing gems like “Cleo From 5 To 7,” “Le Bonheur” and “Vagabond” and pretentious misfires like “Les Creatures” and “Lions Love.” However, her weakest work suffers from an inability to live up to its ambitions, not a lack of them.
In some ways, “Cinevardaphoto” is an odd program, perhaps designed as a precursor to the theatrical release of the 44-minute “Ydessa, the Bears and Etc.”
The compilation consists of three shorts––“Ydessa,” the 1982 “Ulysses” and the 1963 “Salut les Cubains.” Rather different in style and format, the art of photography connects the three. “Ulysses” revisits the people who modeled for a photo Varda took in 1954. “Salut les Cubains” lays voice-over commentary by Varda and actor Michel Piccoli over 1,800 still photographs taken in Cuba, animating some of them. The selection of these particular Varda shorts isn’t arbitrary. Shown in reverse chronological order, certain themes resonate and rhyme.
“Ydessa, the Bears and Etc.” emerged out of Varda’s discovery of Hendeles’ exhibition. Hendeles proves to be quite a character. Rather thin, with long red hair and elongated features, she almost looks like a woman from a Modigliani painting. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she emigrated as a child to Canada and lives alone comfortably in an 18-room mansion. It is this history that lurks behind her teddy bear fixation.
The teddy bears are both an obsession and a red herring. Varda depicts Hendeles searching for photos on eBay and laying out pages for a book on her floor. Her collection consists mostly of family portraits–– the kind of photography that rarely makes its way into art galleries and museums. Taken mostly in America and Germany, the photos are documentation of the 20th century. There are subcategories––soldiers and holiday travelers posed with teddy bears, even bizarre images featuring children with guns and nude women.
Most of these images are ephemeral, but Hendeles has dedicated herself to finding the connections behind them. Her work is exhaustive––she filled the gallery from ceiling to floor, and Varda says that many of the most interesting photos were at the bottom. The exhibit ends with a sculpture of Hitler, leading one spectator to comment, “I see nothing but death here.”
For Hendeles, collecting photos is a way of connecting with history and engaging with the way the Holocaust affected her family. In very different ways, “Ulysses” and “Salut les Cubains” do much the same, personally in “Ulysses” and politically in “Salut les Cubains.”
“Ulysses” is based around an enigmatic photograph taken on a beach. It depicts a nude man and boy and a dead goat, with both people facing the sea. The man, an Egyptian working for Elle magazine, doesn’t remember much about the photo shoot. Varda’s memory itself is fading. She can remember the political events of 1954, without providing specifics about the shoot. She concludes that ultimately “you can see whatever you wish in an image.”
For two reasons, “Salut les Cubains” is the most problematic of the three shorts. First, the white subtitles, which appear over black-and-white photographs, are often unreadable. Film Forum got its print, the best one currently available, directly from Varda. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to keep up with the narration. Second, the film’s celebration of the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro now looks painfully naive. In the press kit, Varda insists that viewers must remember that it was made in 1963.
Still, the film is named “Salut les Cubains,” not “Salut Castro.” Varda’s delight in vibrant Cuban music and joie de vivre comes across powerfully, although there’s something faintly patronizing about the reduction of the country to “socialism and cha-cha-cha.” Seen now, it becomes a film at least as much about the hopes and projections of the 1960s left as about Cuba.
Varda’s last feature, “The Gleaners and I,” celebrated the French art of scavenging for discarded but useful objects. With “Cinevardaphoto,” she has combed through her own work, creating a discourse whose impact grows as it progresses. Even if “Ydessa, the Bears and Etc.” is the strongest portion, this moving reflection on time and memory is more than the sum of its parts.