The Little Universe
Julien Allen on Daguerréotypes

"What is this film? A reportage, an homage, a regret, a reproach? An overture?" —Agnès Varda

Streets in France, by a clear majority, are named after people: heroes of the patrie (fatherland) for the most part, such as presidents and generals, but also artists and writers . . . and inventors. One unprepossessing suburb of Paris, just west of Versailles, with the optimistic name of “Plaisir,” has a whole bank of streets named only for French film directors: Vigo, Truffaut, Tati, Carné, Pagnol, Clair. As for Agnès Varda, there are two streets in France that bear her name, as well as a “Traverse Agnès Varda,” a tiny gap between two rows of houses on the quayside in the southern town of Sète, near Montpellier, where Varda grew up.

There is a street in the 14th arrondissement of Paris named after one of the pioneers of photography, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, whose giant lifelike photographic portraits (“daguerreotypes”) first entranced Parisians 170 years ago. When Varda moved to the capital to study history and photography at the École des Beaux Arts in the late forties, she lived on the rue Daguerre and stayed in that neighborhood for over twenty-five years, regularly passing by the local boutiques, wondering to herself why so many of the window displays never seemed to change. Gradually overcome by a growing sense of guilt and curiosity, in 1975 Varda finally ripped off the sticking-plaster and brought her camera to this tiny place (one block of the street between numbers 70 and 90) mindful that the onrush of modernity—a modernity of which Varda herself was artistically and politically at the absolute forefront—meant that its frozen-in-time aesthetic could be on the cusp of disappearing. Having promised her neighbors that she would use only her own electricity supply to shoot—and being tied to home in any event by a new baby—she created an electrical umbilical cord which she ran from her house to power her equipment, ensuring that on a daily basis she could not film further than 90 meters from her own doorstep. The resultant 80-minute marvel, Daguerréotypes, is part reportage and part existential reflection, and Varda’s delicate assemblage of artistic methodologies—poetry, portrait photography, painting, illusionism, documentary filmmaking—serve to create not just a devastatingly elegiac social portrait but also an open meditation on the nature and value of Agnès Varda’s art. Even in the context of a body of work that more or less exemplifies the concept of personal cinema, Daguerréotypes is as close to a self-portrait as you can get without being one.

The film begins with the sort of quaintly demonstrative foreplay which Daguerre himself might have used in a Clignancourt street market to drum up popular interest in his invention. We see a caped magician, standing on the Place du Trocadéro in front of the Eiffel Tower, grandly announcing—for our entertainment and edification—a new film by Agnès Varda: Daguerréotypes! It’s a joke, because the film exhibits none of this showmanship, yet the magician himself will become a central figure in the piece: he is, like Varda, an “outsider” and he appears in the rue Daguerre for one night only. In a decision so bizarre that only Varda’s execution of it can make it seem entirely logical, he becomes like a second narrator: his multifaceted illusionist’s act (prestidigitation, escapism, fire-eating, divination, fakirism) is skillfully interlaced with the various, doggedly quotidian stories of a small number of the inhabitants and shopkeepers of the rue Daguerre, whose lives Varda crosscuts between in a fluid, rather than episodic, manner.

The first of these people we meet are an elderly man and woman who run Au Chardon Bleu, purveyors and makers of “perfume and hosiery.” They are presented standing still in the first of many forced portraits (of the kind Wes Anderson would one day be very keen on) framed in their own shop doorway as the camera rolls, as if they were posing rather awkwardly for Daguerre himself. Filming the wife, who is ever present in the shop but strangely passive, Varda the narrator sees the “softness of a captive,” apparently alluding to her decades of quiet, unyielding service to the same small business. During the course of the film as we return now and again to their story, the wife will not speak, but her husband pays warm and dignified homage to her skill as a seamstress. He is coy when asked about his initial attraction to her, mentioning that he is glad she kept her hair long and explaining that when he met her at a local ball as a young woman, she was “decent” to him. She is no longer capable of making hosiery, which is why the Chardon Bleu is now just a parfumerie instead of a parfumerie-bonneterie. Later in the film, we see her incongruously touching the coat of one of her customers, who half recoils in confusion. It dawns on the customer and viewer that she might have dementia, which is later confirmed. Her captivity is her condition.

As we witness these inhabitants responding to Varda’s unbroadcasted open questions with little fractured speeches (which, when they remain uninterrupted, often continue beyond the initial comfort barrier of the speaker), we may feel a peculiar sense of aesthetic familiarity. Varda’s cameraman is William Lubtchansky, who debuted on Varda’s Elsa la rose and who, a decade later, would film the testimonies of the Polish townspeople in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah in a vividly similar way, allowing them to more or less unwittingly develop their “characters” for the film. Furthermore, Varda takes trouble to film the temps morts (dead time) when the shops are empty and the characters’ lives seem emptier still. Lubtchansky regularly holds the image for some time after the essential activity on screen has stopped, in the manner of Bresson (who in L’argent would cut a scene only when the sound of action that has left the frame—such as footsteps—has also left our earshot). This technique goes to the heart of Varda’s initial curiosity: how much of these people’s lives is spent waiting, wondering when the next customer would come, and how did they fill this time? Many of them fuss around the shop finding tasks, others sit and contemplate the world outside, they visit each other’s shops; the bakery’s closure routine is captured lovingly, in homage to the boulangère’s dedication to routine. Varda questions the characters in turn about their dreams, but not in the sense of their goals or ambitions—she wants to know their actual dreams: what they dream at night and whether they dream in the day, when the empty time comes around. As they respond hesitantly (“I dream of work”; “I dream only occasionally, sentimental dreams, mostly”), Varda the narrator grasps at her own interpretation: “We’re all undoubtedly prisoners of our lives. For those who are proud of being normal, the dream is an illness. They would rather talk of their professional anxieties than their inner thoughts.”

This approach to filming her “daguerreotypes” (which include a butcher, a baker, a clockmaker, an ironmonger, a tailor, and a lovable driving instructor) reveals Varda’s technical mastery of narrative: her juxtaposition and foreshadowing are delicately judged and her clever use of withholding, parallels, and joins is effortless. But it also goes some way to illustrating the uniqueness of her contribution to cinema, one that firmly disavows the somewhat reductive (not to mention insulting) given title of “grandmother of the New Wave.” For Varda’s work has never existed by reference, or in reappraisal, of what has gone before, nor via a reaction to what is going on at the time, rather it has always operated self-sufficiently and quite separately from her contemporaries and successors: not in a vacuum as such, more of a warm, fecund glasshouse where the richest plants can flourish, lovingly tended to by a patient expert grower. If the cool, flitty insouciance of the exterior camerawork and the messy, unfiltered noise of Parisian streets in Daguerréotypes might conjure up a Rivette of Out 1 or even a Godard of Breathless there is nevertheless a tangible distinction in Varda’s work, which goes further than the distinction between documentary and fiction, and lies in the film’s sense of personal engagement: the filmmaker is humbler and more in thrall to her subject, more uncertain, more directly affected, more vulnerable…and therefore much braver.

This ambitious commitment to her own uncertainty is even true of Varda’s first fiction features, especially in her treatment of the heroine of Cléo from 5 to 7, where there is no sense that the editing of Cléo’s journey around Paris is designed to create cohesion in her character or her circumstances. Varda’s rigorous, disciplined humility is affirmed by the quote at the top of this piece, which comes from the final lines of narration of Daguerreotypes. Allied to her artistic confidence (as if to say, “Whatever transpires here, I will back myself to find a way of presenting it, even if there may not be a name for what it eventually is”), this combination epitomizes liberated, veritably “independent” cinema. Where too many filmmakers arrive at a project with a certain number of preset ingredients (a script, a structure, a thematic concept, or at least an angle), Varda begins at the molecular level and builds outward, letting her various subjects—and their own processes, as prompted by Varda—dictate the creative decisions that she takes. This is conspicuous in more high-profile documentary projects (such as Jane B. par Agnès V.), but it applies equally to fictions such as Vagabond, wherein Sandrine Bonnaire’s nomadic heroine appears to be writing the film’s somewhat arbitrary narrative through chance encounters, rather than following any conducting arc. Varda’s subjugation to the people or places she films and/or depicts calls to mind the role of poets in the Middle Ages who were tasked with proclaiming the greatness of kings (notwithstanding that Daguerréotypes is a study of the unremarkable).

The contrast between Varda’s subservient attitude to her work and the soapbox-wielding confidence of her public image in France at the time of filming Daguerréotypes could not be more acute. One of her characters in Daguerréotypes, quite reasonably, says, “We don’t talk politics in the shop…it’s bad for business,” yet Lubtchansky’s camera alights here and there on little details which situate the film strongly in its own political time (while the street itself seems lost in the past) and lingers on them. Examples include Brigitte Bardot on the cover of Paris Match in the hairdressers and the imminent passing of the loi Veil (legalization of abortion) headlined in a newspaper being used as a prop by the magician. Varda had been a prominent campaigner for women’s rights and was one of the first public figures to confess to a criminal offense by declaring that she had had an abortion herself. She makes no express or implied reproach of the political apathy of the “daguerreotypes,” but she permits herself to observe, subtly, how detached they have become from the world outside.

By 1993 when I visited the rue Daguerre as a student I discovered that not one of the shops featured in Daguerréotypes had survived. Since then, the replacement shops have been replaced again. Leases grow shorter; time is compressed by technological progress; where people work and where they live no longer relate to one another as before . . . so these “daguerreotypes” seem ever more like relics. Only the tiny concert hall (where the magician performs) remains, and of course, so does this film: these larger-than-life pictures, these people, will live for all time. But how can we answer Varda’s question quoted above with any certainty? What is this film? If documentary cinema is meant to uncover something, then perhaps its revelation lies in cinema’s ability to seize and compel us even while depicting a hinterland that holds no outwardly objective fascination: a world we would otherwise walk straight through.

Varda’s generosity of spirit and her career-long tendency towards self-portraiture (exhibited in Daguerréotypes through her interrogation of what she herself is thinking, as much as what her subjects are thinking) afford us the opportunity to indulge in the same exercise. Daguerréotypes is all the things Varda fears it might be, but at its heart it’s a universal overture, which all cinema can live for: let me into your world; let me know what you feel; let me learn how you live.