By Owen Gleiberman
Updated February 24, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST
Cinevarda Photo: Ciné-tamaris

Agnàs Varda’s celebrated 1962 French new-wave film, Cleo From 5 to 7, followed an anxious young singer as she wandered around Paris waiting for the results of a medical exam. In the years since, Varda herself has never stopped wandering. Now in her late 70s, she makes movies by following her impulses, going where caprice takes her, creating a risky and nimble, hit-or-miss aesthetic of impromptu documentary meditation.

Cinèvardaphoto, her latest offering, is actually three short films linked by their obsession with the mystery of photographs. Only one of the films is new (it’s about memory, the Holocaust…and teddy bears), and one, made in 1963, is a startlingly exultant and wide-eyed celebration of the Cuban revolution. What lights Cinèvardaphoto is Varda’s ageless ability to merge her spirit with that of the images she shows us.

In the new short, Ydessa, the Bears, and Etc., Varda explores a gargantuan exhibit of early-20th-century portrait stills, each of which includes a prominently placed teddy bear. The curator, however, couldn’t be less cuddly: Ydessa Hendeles, the child of Holocaust survivors, suggests a flaming-haired, sunken-cheeked Morticia Addams as she describes amassing these photos of the near-Victorian past as a surrogate for her own destroyed family history. The teddy bears become a creepy totem of withered innocence, and resilience too. The second short, Ulysses, made in 1982, is a bit of a dud, as it laboriously deconstructs an image shot by Varda on a beach in the mid-’50s. But then we’re plunged into Salut les Cubains, a rapid-fire essay — it’s like Life magazine gone kaleidoscopic — composed of shots of Cuba in the first era after the revolution. Musicians and dancers, doctors and tobacco workers, Fidel and Che: All are triumphant, united in their vision of a socialist utopia. It’s easy, in hindsight, to drop your jaw at the sentimental leftist naïveté of Varda’s narration, except that what we’re seeing can’t be denied — the Marxist dream, perhaps, but also the glory of Cuba before it sank under the weight of Castro’s ego.