Lost in the Movies: Daguerréotypes


An old woman, with a striking pinched face that smiles warmly when it isn't lost in a melancholy fog, wanders to the door of her husband's perfume shop and pauses. He comments, offscreen, that this often happens just after sunset: she always starts to leave without actually committing to leaving. She is not alone in that spirit, even if she dramatizes it more boldly than most. So much of this film about small business on a Parisian avenue, a documentary dominated by long stretches of purely observational technique, seems caught between the dimness of the world outside and the absorption of the world inside. When the film inquires about the shopkeepers' sleeping patterns, the petite bourgeois standard-bearers acknowledge that even their dreams are filled with work: the day-to-day routines and sturdy, functional environments of their workplaces are cocoons which could be - and perhaps occasionally are - suffocating, but are more often comforting. The films of Agnès Varda are always exploratory, frequently in a globe-trotting or at least nation-spanning manner, but Daguerréotypes' world is small and close at hand, in more ways than one.

Two decades into a film career that had brought her all over France as well as to California, Varda decided to look to her immediate surroundings as inspiration for her next movie. She lived on Rue Daguerre, and if that street name sounds vaguely familiar to non-Parisians, it's because of Louis Daguerre (after whom the street is named), one of photography's earliest innovators with his daguerreotype technique. In the 1840s, viewers marveled at their ability to reflect the world around them; today, we marvel at their ability to represent a world long gone. And so it is with Varda's Daguerréotypes - the slice of life becomes a blast from the past. Of course, this film was aired on television forty, rather than one hundred seventy years ago, so many of its participants are still with us (including Varda herself, who turned ninety earlier in the year I'm writing this, and screened her latest film at Cannes a year earlier). The avenue itself also appears to retain much of earlier-era charm, still dominated by mom-and-pop shops like we see onscreen: butchers, bakers, tailors, and so forth.

Moreover, unlike the daguerreotype photos which offer a kind of demarcation line in the history of representation, beyond which we cannot peer, the cinema was already eighty years old in 1976. What was somewhat new was the ability and agility of Varda's camera and sound equipment; the cinema verité technique was still relatively novel in the seventies, the decade when the "everyday documentary" really came into its own. Many of the direct cinema examples I can think of from the sixties captured extraordinary events or people on the fly, with part of the charm being the juxtaposition of their larger-than-life status with this down-to-earth style. But by the seventies that lens was perhaps more often turned in the other direction, with Louis Malle in particular being a good example of this shift. The epic Phantom India provides an early marker (everyday to the people it filmed, extraordinary to the European audiences who watched it from afar) and God's Country is a mixture of the exotic and familiar, depending on context (aired on PBS to audiences for whom its American farm community may have been closer to home, although to the filmmaker himself they were foreigners). However, Malle's most obvious companion to Daguerréotypes is Place de la Republique.

Shot in the mid-seventies and consisting of footage filmed in a small area filled with everyday activities, Place de la Republique (set just three miles from Daguerréotypes) provides a compelling counterpoint as well as a companion. Both Malle and Varda are characterized by an immense, generous curiosity about their fellow man and woman. However, Malle's film is about the public square, where individuals cross paths and come together before splintering off into fascinatingly unique directions, while Varda's figures feel more steadfast in their isolation, clearly anchored to a specific space and task. Mostly as a consequence of this particular distinction (because over her broader career, Varda too was deeply interested in outcasts), Malle's subjects are more likely to be marginal: young, restless, sometimes unemployed. One film is about transit, the other is about stability.

If Place de la Republique feels like a stronger film overall, that may because this street's eye view tends to suit Malle's particular strengths more than Varda's: he is a filmmaker who delights in honing in on particularities while digging deeper and deeper to reveal (in the title of one of his films) "the fire within," whereas Varda's own masterpieces are often created by collecting many dispersed points and inventively connecting them together to paint a broad, sprawling, collage-like tapestry. She does so here as well, but with a bit less material to work with than usual, resulting in the occasional longueurs. There are hints of the Varda of The Gleaners & I or the miniseries From Here to There in certain passages of this film where plain observation gives way to clever playfulness, particularly when she teasingly links a magician's tricks to the supposedly mundane activities of the various shopkeepers; for a moment, we're dancing in F for Fake territory.

The camera also has a tendency to dance from figure to figure, just hinting at a Place de la Republique-like interconnection, before returning to a single focus; a commentator on Fandor observes, "it's almost too perfect, like the whole thing has been staged." This reminds me of the very arch - and hilarious - experimental film The Girl Chewing Gum, in which the voice of a director shouting commands is layered over documentary footage of a busy street, as if the obviously unplanned actions of the unaware passerby are in fact being orchestrated by an offscreen filmmaker. The author of the colorful French Wikipedia entry on the film observes that the film "floats sometimes like a musical comedy of Jacques Demy; we expect to hear Rosalie Varda sing 'I would like some cologne for a friend,'" (Rosalie was Agnès' daughter and Jacques, the director of Umbrellas of Cherbourg, was her husband). When these more overt moments of magic and playfulness intervene, they appear to enter the frame from another direction than the grounded subjects - an intriguing dissonance emerges between auteur and subject.

And yet as Jesse Cotaldo notes in a perceptive Slant review, "it seems important that most of those profiled come from places outside Paris, born in Eastern Europe or Algeria or southern France. This suggests Daguerréotypes as something more than a rote portrayal of Varda's daily errands, more like a tacit examination of the lengths people will go in order to find a place where they belong ... revealing that each has gone through some kind of passage to end up with their respective label." Comparing this contained work, then, to not just the offscreen memories of the subjects (meeting their spouses at a provincial dance, serving in the military, crossing a sea and leaving a family behind) but to Varda's own wide-ranging filmography yields an even richer experience than just immersing oneself in the singular work at hand. Knowing the broader sweep of history and the world (just think of the times they lived through by virtue of their age and location!) certainly helps them, us, and Varda to savor the sturdiness of Daguerre Avenue.

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