A Pavement Made of Soil
Published on December 12th, 2011 | by Ryan Wells0
“Daguerréotypes” runs from December 12-18 at Maysles Cinema.
Running time: 74 minutes; French w/English subtitles
The first shot in Agnès Varda’s 1975 documentary “Daguerréotypes” (after a brisk curtain raising effect that’s both symbolic and literal) is of a caped magician standing at Trocadéro, the Eiffel Tower directly behind him. After the narrated opening credits, the second shot we get is of an older couple standing inside a store called Le Chardon Bleu, directly behind the glass on the entrance door. She’s looking off down the street, he’s looking directly at the camera. Both appear at ease, yet slightly solemn without expression. Framed beautifully, they make their own daguerreotype (an homage to the street’s name as well).
It all started, according to the filmmaker, because of Le Chardon Bleu (The Blue Thistle), an unusual shop near Varda’s home on Rue Daguerre in the fourteenth arrondissement of Paris. The store, run by a perfumist and his wife, has kept the same products in its inventory for the past twenty-five years. (They opened the store in 1933). Varda’s daughter, Rosalie, is a regular customer. It’s small, cluttered and charming. And it sets the tone for the rest of the film, a kind of curiosity essay, if you will, on the tradespeople of Varda’s street.
From the brief questions thrown at the subjects we learn that all of the inhabitants on this street—propane workers, tailors, clockmakers, butchers, grocers, beauticians—are provincial types who have moved to Paris in their adolescence or soon thereafter. Many have moved to Paris after finding love in the country and bringing their significant other to the city to become entrepreneurs in a trade they’ve mastered in their formative years. It’s a clever move by Varda to include these genealogies. The point is very clear: Paris is not Parisian only. (One could swap this country vs. city argument with ever-sensitive debate on Paris’s multiculturalism nowadays.)
“Daguerréotypes” is indeed in its element when it takes to the street and picks up bits of people watching, reading, sleeping and so forth. Sometimes we get a snippet of tittle-tattle, but we never really know its origins or context. Customers come in and out of the shops. We see them purchase, bargain and order with the shopkeepers. Varda never shows us the domestic life of the tradespeople, although it’s understood that they live either on Rue Daguerre or in the vicinity. And this is just as well. The work they do, the things they create and sell, is their raison d’être. Their shop is their home; and they don’t make time for much else. As one woman says, “I don’t sleep. Sunday is for television and naps.”
Varda also intercuts the film with scenes from a magic show (the Mystag Mystery Festival) attended by the locals that’s first nicely symbolic as it shows a balance between the illusion and reality of everyday life, and then it peters out and becomes, frankly, tiresome and unnecessary in the long run.
Regardless, “Daguerréotypes” is pleasant slice of cinema that shows a curious, confident artist perfecting her craft, not just as a talented feature filmmaker, but also as an ethnographer who makes the voyage some fifty yards from her front door in order to redefine Paris.