Vintage People-Watching with Agnes Varda

12/07/2011 4:00 AM |

Daguerréotypes (1976)
Directed by Agnès Varda

An openhearted, unpretentious film genius who often seems to be reinventing her medium as she goes, Agnès Varda is particularly gifted at uncovering fascinating stories where most people would never think to look. In Daguerréotypes , she turns her camera on her own neighbors, the shopkeepers of Rue Daguerre, the street where she then lived-and still does, 60 years after she first moved in.

She plays with theatricality, opening with and frequently cutting back to the magician who stages a show on Rue Daguerre while she’s filming, and who will, she promises, “erase logical ideas … and lull an already still world.” But this is at heart a quiet work of unobtrusive observation, an exercise in what you can see if you look long and closely enough at any “average street with people passing, talking … the silent majority with a dreadful mask,” as Varda puts it in voiceover. It all began, she tells us, with her fascination with the elderly couple who run the Blue Thistle down the street, an antique shop whose “air of mystery” she captures, as she does the elderly woman’s melancholy “air of a captive.”

As Varda’s camera follows the inseparable couple at intervals during their day, the man doing all the talking and arranging while the woman follows silently in his wake, it gradually becomes clear that she has dementia and he is her loving caregiver, though Varda is never rude or crude enough to pathologize their behavior with clinical labels. Instead, she listens as the man talks about a confused “inner force” in his wife that makes her want to go out every day in the early evening while at the same time she wants to stay in, then finds the universality in what’s known these days as “sundowning.” We’re all trapped in our own routines, Varda muses in voiceover, always wanting to go out in the evening but almost always staying in.

It’s easy to imagine an anthropologist from the future studying Daguerréotypes for months for the “slowness and the patience” it finds in the merchants’ daily work and the rhythms of their customers’ routines. It’s an intimate portrait of a highly functional urban community, its class and ethnic inequities softened by old-fashioned civility as shopkeepers ask after their customers’ families and neighbors inquire into each other’s health as they pass on the street. Varda periodically reminds us that she’s just part of the mix, identifying her own daughter, Rosalie, when she shows up on camera and occasionally leaving in her own questions as she conducts cozy one-on-one interviews with the merchants, coaxing these shy, humble people into opening up with straightforward questions about things like what they dreamed about last night or how they met (many of the shops are run by married couples).

Big themes surface periodically, presenting themselves for our contemplation before ducking back beneath the surface. I found myself thinking about how immigration changed France during the last century (Mr. and Mrs. Blue Thistle are French-born Armenians, and another of the merchants is from an island off Tunisia), and about how money and art transform our lives in ways we don’t normally notice. But Varda never lectures us on theory or underlines the significance of any particular moment.

Instead, she and her editors (Andrée Choty and Gordon Swire) round up telling details and play with visual parallels to create another of the deeply personal, casually poetic, yet playful documentaries that may be Varda’s most natural form.

Opens December 12 at the Maysles Cinema