Thursday, May 30, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Daguerreotypes’

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To watch an Agnes Varda documentary sometimes feels like checking in with an old friend. Daguerreotypes feels like a postcard from a companion we have not seen in a long time. Seeing it today as we crawl out the other end of a worldwide pandemic, the world captured by Varda seems almost too quaint and intimate.

The title is a layered pun. Varda lived on the Rue Daguerre, named after Louis Daguerre, who invented the daguerreotype, an early form of photography. It has another connection as well, with Varda being a photographer. The documentary itself is a series of interviews and observations, structured like vignettes, as Varda and her camerawoman Nurith Aviv capture life in Paris in the late 70s.

Varda bookends the film with “The Blue Thistle,” a perfume and hosiery shop by her house. An old married couple runs the shop, and Varda is particularly fascinated by the wife, whom she affectionately calls Mrs Blue Thistle. Aviv’s camera lingers on the older woman even as the customer is talking to her husband.

The older woman paces back and forth in the shop, sometimes perched on a stool as she stares out at the streets with a sad look upon her face. Varda captures the woman without ever really intruding on her thoughts or her privacy. She and Aviv merely sit and observe.

Daguerreotypes is an astonishingly unpretentious film. It is a documentary filled with the everyday business of the people’s day-to-day lives along the Rue Daguerre. Varda and Aviv will often set the camera across the street and merely capture the store owners working from a distance. Or more accurately, waiting for someone to enter the shop.

We spend so much of our modern-day lives looking for ways to fill up the minutes that it’s easy to forget that there was a time when you had to do nothing. Talking to the butcher, or the market person, or the hairdresser, we see they spend a lot of time waiting for a customer. A rush will occur out of nowhere, but soon it will be dealt with, and soon they are back to waiting, waiting, and waiting.

Varda looks at all these people with such open-hearted compassion as she asks them about their trade, exposing years’ worth of knowledge about a particular craft. With each passing interview, we not only learn about the people talking but Varda’s neighborhood. “The air shakes when they name their birth-place…the village of their childhood.” 

Most of the people Varda talks to were not born in Paris, and she inquires about the winding path of life which brought them there. “So here’s the truth about Paris 14th: Its pavement smells of soil.”

She asks them how they met their wives and husbands, patching together stories of lives and loves fully lived. Daguerreotypes. Aviv’s camera not only presents the people but considers them and lovingly lingers on the world around them. The two ladies slyly use the camera both as an objective recording device, a time capsule of sorts, as well as an intimate recording and stylistic way of framing these ordinary working-class people.

About midway through the film, a magician comes to the street. He bills himself as Mystag the Magician. After the shops have closed up at night, the whole neighborhood seems crowded into a shop to watch Mystag perform his illusions and tricks. Varda herself is a lover of magic, as, indeed, most great filmmakers are, as the two skills are so intensely and poetically intertwined.

“And now we are transported in a world of mystery and illusion. He’ll catalyze, temporarily, half-frights and blank laughter. He’ll erase logical ideas and cheering certainties. He’ll reveal mediums unknown to themselves. He’ll lull an already still world.”

Here Varda and her editors Andree Choty and Gordon Swire fall into their most blatant stylization. Up until this point, Daguerreotypes has mainly been static shots. Varda’s narration is sporadically sprinkled throughout with the occasional dolly shot of people passing by the shops. But once Mystag shows up, they begin to parallel the magic sleight of hand and the everyday routines of the bakers, plumbers, and driving school instructors. The magic of everyday life tinged with the illusion of dreams we conjure within ourselves.

Daguerreotypes feel as if we are walking along with Varda around her neighborhood. As if she is pointing out local landmarks and whispering gossip into our ears. It is an intimate tour around her world. Indeed she was caring for her two-year-old at the time and did not want to leave her house. So she filmed her neighborhood, her tiny world, as far as the electric cables from her home would allow her to travel.

The result is a visceral empathetic look at people who are often relegated to the background of the stories they read or watch. People who are so entrenched in their lives that when Varda asks them what their dreams are, many of them take her literally and tell her they do not dream or if they do, they do not remember them.

Varda weaves together documentary and cinematic styles blending objective truth with subjective aesthetic, teasing out a more complicated and beautiful recollection of a place and time. Through it all is Mrs. Blue Thistle, sitting silently either regretting her choices, yearning to go outside, or living on the fringes of dementia.

At night we see Mrs. Blue Thistle starts to leave, but her husband calls her back. He tells Varda that his wife drifts outside at night as if “an inner force” compels her. Though Varda confesses that she is fascinated by the older woman, she is the one, ironically, which we learn the least about. Yet, Aviv’s camera can’t help being drawn to her pondering face and those yearning-filled eyes.

Daguerreotypes is a documentary I would argue that is tailor-made for the current generation. They are often criticized for being “too online” or for “recording banal forgettable moments.” But all they are trying to do is capture the small moments between the memorable ones because those are the moments we forget. Our lives, like Mystag’s bag of tricks, are illusions that are at times too fleeting. It’s important to remember that so much happens that we often forget just how much living we do in such a small amount of time. 

Image courtesy of ZDF

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