In 1975, Agnes Varda pointed her camera outside her window to capture the images and rhythms of daily life on the Rue Daguerre. "Daguerreotypes" winds up being a dual pun not just referencing photography, but also the faces she records, the vibrant and photogenic "types" that run the mom and pop stores along the Parisian road.
The genesis of Varda's film is the Blue Thistle shop which fascinates her because the same objects have been on sale there for over 25 years and also because of the owner and his wife, referred to as Mr. and Mrs. Blue Thistle. They appear to have been working there for the past 250 years, making perfumes in-shop, though Mrs. Blue Thistle does not work so much as hover along the periphery. It's like she lives in a pocket universe, and only projects a slim portion of herself into our dimension. No wonder Varda couldn't wait to turn the lens on her, if for no other reason than to prove that Mrs. Blue Thistle could actually be recorded on film.
Eventually Varda tears herself away from the shop to survey the rest of the Rue Daguerre where she finds a butcher and a baker in addition to the perfume maker (and a tailor and a driving instructor…). Much of the early film is silent or at least only has Varda narrating, holding her distance from the portraits she takes (she likes framing store keepers through windows and doorways), but she can't resist the urge to get to know them. The couples who own and run the stores talk about how they met while also conducting daily business.
Varda films this business with an eye for detail: bread, white linen and even accordion music become characters of a sort. She also stages scenes in which her daughter is a customer in some of the stores, a further assault on the idiot notion still held in some quarters that a documentary is supposed to be objective. This is clearly a personal project for Varda, as much about her (what she sees, what she hears each day) as it is about the vendors.
Somewhat less successful, for me, is the decision to stage a magic show (with the great Mystag!) where all of her characters fill out the audience. Varda cuts back and forth between "documentary" footage in the stores and the show as Mystag performs his tricks, as old and routinized as the daily business transactions on the Rue Daguerre. Time has not stopped so much as it blends together, the same words and actions repeated each day, then, now and always.
"Daguerreotypes" is not the best documentary by Agnes Varda, one of the world's best documentarians, but I hesitate to call it one of her minor films. Rather it's a lyrical complement to the rest of her work in which documentary and fiction have always blended and which has produced some of the most memorable portraits of the human face and of human lives of any cinema.
The film is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the image is picture boxed which means some viewers will see it take up a smaller portion of the screen with larger black borders framing the image. There's less information in the visual field, but the transfer is still a good one. The film does not appear to have been restored and since it was shot on 16mm it has a rough, grainy look, but that's how it was intended to be. It gives it more of a home-made appearance anyway.
The film is presented with a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. It's not heavy on dialogue but what we have appears to be clearly mixed. Ambient sound is an important element in the film's design as well, and it's difficult to assess just how much of it is preserved without listening to this in a theater as a comparison point. However, it feels pretty rich and layered, so I'm giving it a thumbs up or whatever term of approval isn't copyrighted by someone else. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
"Rue Daguerre" in 2005 (23 min.) takes us back to the same street thirty years later to see whether time has finally caught up to this snow globe sealed world. It has, but don't be afraid – there's no row of Wal-Marts and Borders. Remember Borders? The Blue Thistle is now an Iraqi-Lebanese café which you could claim is representative of demographic shifts in France if you wanted to overreach from a single example.
There are several brief extras on the disc. "Daguerreotypes: Photographic Objects" (6 min.) sketches a brief history of early photography but doesn't offer too much. "Bread, Painting and Accordion" (8 min.) shows the man who purchased the bakery shown in the film, and some excruciating excerpts from the 1988 film "Jane B. for Agnes V," also shot in the bakery. Another three-minute piece takes place at the 2005 "Fete de la Musique" on the Rue Daguerre.
Cinema Guild also encourages viewers to check out their other Varda release "Cinevardaphoto" by including a short from that disc, the three-minute "T´as De Beaux Escaliers, Tu Sais." I encourage you to do so as well!
The slim insert booklet features an excerpt from a Varda interview conducted by Agnès Coudurier.
As I said in my review of "Cinevardaphoto," Varda's playful spirit is the core of her enduring appeal. That and her indisputable talent. Varda loves her characters, and though she maintains the distance an artist needs to, she pours herself into every frame of this documentary. It is not her best work, but it is a fine one, and more than worth a recommendation.