In ”Ulysse” Agnes Varda, who began as a still photographer and went on to direct some good films (”Cleo From 5 to 7,” ”Lions Love”) and some not so hot (”One Sings, the Other Doesn’t”), ponders the meaning of a photograph she took 30 years ago. It’s a crystal-clear, black-and-white composition in which a naked man, his back to the camera, stands on a rocky beach, looking toward the sea, while a naked little boy sits nearby, staring at the photographer and ignoring the carcass of a goat in the foreground.
The photograph is initially mysterious and striking, like Andrew Wyeth’s ”Christina’s World,” and, like the painting, the film Miss Varda has made about the photograph has its moments of pretentiousness. ”You see everything and you see nothing,” Miss Varda says on the soundtrack, which, taking my lead from Miss Varda’s oblique, self-absorbed narration, I can say is only half-true.
Ulysse is the name of the naked boy, the son of Spanish Republican refugees who had been Miss Varda’s friends in Paris. The film’s most interesting moments come when Miss Varda calls on Ulysse today at the Rue de Rivoli bookshop he runs. Ulysse is a bit startled. Shown the photograph, he says he remembers nothing of the circumstances in which it was taken. Miss Varda cross-examines him as if she were an attorney, then shows him a painting he made as a child, copying the photograph. He still doesn’t remember. Miss Varda finds that so difficult to believe that she seems to think he is lying. Suggests the patient Ulysse, ”It’s reality and fiction.”