Film Review: Daguerreotypes<i>Daguerreotypes</i>, one of Agnès Varda’s early yet accomplished feature-length documentaries, presages the themes and visual style she would explore in her subsequent work.
Film history may yet add “mother of the personal documentary” to Agnès Varda’s well-known sobriquet of “grandmother of the New Wave.” Daguerreotypes is an excellent example of the French filmmaker’s penchant for portraying herself through what immediately surrounds her, in this case the Paris neighborhood where she has lived for most of her life. Released in France in 1975 and now receiving its U.S. premiere, it is a primer on the cinematic patterns of Varda’s subsequent documentaries, such as Ulysses (1986), a short, and The Beaches of Agnes (2008), ruminations on aging and the creative life, and Ydessa, the Bears and etc. (2004) and The Gleaners and I (2000), contemplations of objects preserved, discarded and gleaned. With her usual whimsy and a desire to anchor us in the moment, however fleeting, Varda explores her sense of place through the people whose labors characterize Rue Daguerre, a street in Montparnasse.
As Varda points out in The Gleaners and I, everything old can be made new. In the title of her 1975 documentary, she acknowledges the earliest photographic process, both because of the coincidence of her residence on a street named for Louis Daguerre, an inventor of the daguerreotype, and because photography evolved into the artistic medium that allows her to depict the “types” or personalities inhabiting Rue Daguerre. Daguerreotypes were mounted under glass, and this inspired an element of Varda’s visual style in the documentary: Her subjects are mostly seen through their shop windows. While Daguerreotypes follows the merchants who were then the foundation of the legendary Bohemian district, its present-day screening serves a wonderful historical purpose.
Varda, “as a neighbor,” takes us inside a bakery, a household-goods store, and the shops of a perfume maker, a butcher, a barber, a plumber and an accordion seller. Today, Rue Daguerre retains the Old World charm of the Left Bank, yet in the contrast between the present and the past that the re-release of the documentary will no doubt engender, what stands out is not the labors of the shopkeepers or their wares, but instead the relative simplicity of the times.
Part of Varda’s genius is the integration of serendipitous elements into the mainstream of her documentaries, and in Daguerreotypes, this consists of an accordion player and a magician; one is used to create the score, and the other’s performance in a café supplements Varda’s narration. All the shopkeepers attend the magic show, and Varda uses the magician’s commentary as a narrative track for scenes of her subjects at work and at home. While the technique is somewhat contrived, especially because of the conjurer’s theatricality, the wonderment on the faces of the audience during the show is a time-warp, and places us in a particular, perhaps less cynical, era of history. The passage of time, our existence in time, and the ways in which the past informs the present are all recurring themes in Varda’s oeuvre, and are especially relevant here because rather than her contemporaries, those of us living now are Varda’s intended audience for Daguerreotypes.
Varda’s daughter appears in the first sequence of the documentary, entering the perfume shop the filmmaker says, in voiceover, inspired her to make Daguerreotypes. In The Blue Thistle, where we get glimpses of the sort of products that, post-globalization, are nearly impossible to find except in the developing world, Varda unveils her most exquisite visual metaphor for the continuity she hopes to create through the documentary. The senescence of the shopkeepers, a married couple, and the fact of the wife’s dementia introduce her lifelong preoccupation with aging—Varda was 47 in 1975—and her frequent motivation as an artist to preserve in the face of the evanescent nature of people, places and things. In the husband’s devotion to his wife, as well as her daughter’s affection for them, Varda finds hope, intangible and immutable which, unlike the daguerreotypes, promises to endure.
Throughout Daguerreotypes, Varda maintains a peculiar distance from the inner lives of her shopkeepers and merchants, which renders them visual elements, part of the geography of Rue Daguerre, a springboard for exploring her own preoccupations. For some, this is the key to Varda’s charm, that she is continually self-referential and seems to invite others to be as well. Only when she asks the couples how they met, or about their dreams, do we experience them seemingly free from the onscreen personas Varda creates for them.
Daguerreotypes is the work of an already accomplished filmmaker—Cleo From 5 to 7 was released in 1962, and Le Bonheur in 1965—one who, even when she meanders, integrates her thoughts with the subject at hand through the sheer force of her personality and intellect.