At first, this may seem one of the more obscure Varda shorts, especially if, like me, you lack a classical education. But after a few moments it becomes familiar as a film about ‘street art’, a feminist reflection on statuary and an essay that links architecture to photography and makes use of poetry by Baudelaire and music by Offenbach. And the whole is, of course, imbued with Varda’s formal playfulness and eye for gentle comedy. Around 12minutes long, this was made for the French TV channel TF1.
It begins with an immediately arresting sight as a slim young man descends from a building in central Paris, browned by the sun but completely naked with pale buttocks. He’s not strictly the first thing we see since, as part of the title sequence, the camera rises to follow the graceful lines of a statue of a young woman holding up a lamp by the door. When the young man walks beneath her, he holds up his arm almost mirroring her pose. She is actually partially clothed with a robe wrapped around her bottom half, as if it has slipped down, baring her breasts. He walks away from us down the road and Varda’s voiceover remarks on how nudes on the street are usually stone or bronze rather than alive. We aren’t surprised by the unclad women whose forms hold up the lamps that illuminate the buildings and the pavements so “graciously and lasciviously” as Varda puts it and she offers us a selection of such figures. I immediately thought of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the influential little book that in the 1970s revolutionised the way we think about the human form in art. Varda goes on tell us that she prefers the statues that hold up balconies and lintels and then explains caryatids.
There seems to be some dispute as to the exact derivation of the term and thus the “so-called caryatids” of the title in English translation. The reference is to the maidens of Karyes, a small town near Sparta with a statue of ‘Artemis Caryatis’ around which the maidens danced. Varda references the Roman architect Vitruvius who claimed the young girls became slaves when the town betrayed Greece in the War against the Persians but other sources suggest different derivations. Either way the idea of statues replacing columns in supporting aspects of buildings became common in Parisian 19th century classical architecture. The young women are caryatids and the more powerful male figures are known as atlases. Both genders are nude or partially clothed.The young women supporting a lintel may be arranged symmetrically but are never identical. The women have bared breasts and clinging robes, the men have mighty muscles and Varda’s camera catches their modern forms in the workers on the street below – in this case porters carrying sacks of vegetables.
But Varda also finds women gracefully carrying baskets on their heads – she tells us that she spent time photographing women in Portugal demonstrating this and that in classical architecture the women should appear to be supporting features of buildings “effortlessly”. The explosion of caryatids on buildings came in the decade from 1860, an extraordinary time in for literature including works from Victor Hugo, Karl Marx and Gustave Flaubert plus painters like Delacroix and Manet. Varda then turns to Baudelaire and his fate in the 1860s and the caryatids become more solemn and more varied with fewer nudes. The film concludes with a giant angel caryatid. With this Varda’s sense of play returns and we watch a host of people with brooms, one on each balcony cleaning the caryatid.
I don’t think any other filmmaker could combine the various elements of Varda’s cinematic essay in quite the same way. All of Varda’s shorts appear to have been restored and made available on the various collections of her work.
This short is in colour but the grey shades of the statues often dominates the images, making them feel monochrome and then surprising us when colour suddenly returns. Here’s a brief excerpt from the start of the film: