By Afra Nariman
Directed by: Agnés Varda
Stars: The local shop owners and citizens of the Parisian street: Rue Daguerre, circa. 1975
A documentary made by Agnés Varda featuring deeply intimate vignettes of life on Rue Daguerre, a simple street in Paris, where she lived. While caring for her 2 year old son at the time, she couldn’t leave her home for long periods of time, so she decided to make this film highlighting the simplicity and genuine personalities of her neighbors and her small community.
In today’s world, now almost 50 years after the making of this film, there are still a few places where life is simple, technology and money don’t rule relationships and lives; but for most of us, life is full of complicated relationships and a fast paced lifestyle. That’s why watching a film like Daguerréotypes is humbling and refreshing. It is an enchanting, mystical, almost folkloric take on simplistic reality. The film shows us the wonder that life has to offer, in every minuscule way, in each uneventful moment of our day. It shows us that by being mindful of the small moments that we often overlook or ignore all together, we can still see the wonder. This documentary is as grounded and as genuine as anything I have ever watched.
Daguerréotypes causes us to think about the parts of our days that we, especially today, rush past and never give a second thought towards. Varda creates a unique aesthetic, as she offers a romantic view of her street and of the normal people living normal lives who inhabit the street. From time to time, she offers insightful narration and reflection that grounds us in the reality of the life she is portraying so elegantly, and guides our thought process as we watch real, genuine life unfold before our eyes. In an early description of Rue Daguerre, she says;
“It’s a very average street with people passing by or chatting, people behind each door, each window… that silent majority behind its fearsome mask… that nonetheless behaves with the quaint charm you’d expect, all to the strains of an accordion.”Varda’s voice
We hear the accordion that she speaks of from time to time, and see a couple of the locals play theirs, both inside and outside of the street’s accordion store. Her street is one of those places in the world that, even if people would visit it, practically nobody is likely to give much extra thought towards the people who live there. Everybody is normal. I’ve used that word (normal) a lot already, but it’s the word best suited to describe what the film’s subject is; although it is far from an acceptable description of how the film illustrates the life that happens on Rue Daguerre every day in 1975.
With Varda’s voice frequently narrating the things we see unfold on screen, the film can be viewed as a sort of spoken-word poem, accompanied by romantic and lively visuals of everyday life. As Varda says in the film;
As she is known for doing, Varda creates art (“theater”) out of life itself. For her, life is where art happens, and in this film, she beautifully captures it as it is happening right outside of her front doorstep.
Throughout the film, we get short vignettes of each “character” speaking about a singular topic, such as who they are, where they come from, how they met their lovers, etc. In reference to when each citizen of the street formally introduces themselves to us, Varda says, what we are all feeling, and perhaps thinking, but surely unable to express as elegantly as she can:
In many ways, this documentary is also a meditation on time, as much as it is on life and humanity. To hear men and women speak in 1975, about their life, their past, which dated back 40-50 years from then, which is almost 100 years ago for us today — it is a truly humbling, beautiful and an unbelievably mesmerizing thing. The air truly does tremble, and I think as time goes on and we, the audience, are separated more and more from that time, that place; the air will tremble even more.
In this film, we are dropped into the lives of, and given the unique opportunity to observe and understand, men and women from all different walks of life — so long as it is a normal one. We observe a baker and his wife, a cologne expert and his wife, tailors, butchers, artisans, hairdressers, and salesmen, as they tend to their respective trades. And in short, but frequent bursts, the mystical aura of the film is heightened by the interruption of a magician who is performing for the locals at the corner cafe. Through the inclusion of his performance, as he intends for his audience, Varda transports us “to the future,” so to speak, as we realize how humble and simple life is in the present, and even more so at the time of the film: 1975. Nothing quite compares to the experience of watching this film and the authenticity that it communicates through.
The last 10-15 minutes of the film is enchantingly beautiful. The star of the film in many ways is Mrs. Blue Thistle, an elderly woman who works with her husband, the cologne expert, in their small neighborhood shop. In the beginning of the film, Varda says that this elderly woman interests her more than anything else. Now at the end of the film, we learn that Mrs. Thistle, each evening at 6:00pm, expresses the mysterious urge to leave, to walk outside of the store — only she never wanders off, she steps outside, and then always returns. Following this scene, each “character,” in a short vignette, describes their experience (or lack of experience) with dreams. Many explain that they do not dream at all, most claim they dream, but only of their work, and a few claim that they dream as we do — of romance, riches and desires. In reference to everything I just described in this paragraph, Varda’s voice returns to narrate. She says;
“Perhaps we all want to make off at dusk. No doubt we’re all prisoners in our own lives. But to those proud to be “normal”, to dream is an illness. They’d rather discuss their work than their dreams. They deny having any daydreams or inner life. It’s truly the silence of a deep sleep… a resistance to change.”
Like I said, her narrations methodically come when she aims to guide our thoughts, to make us think past the normalcy of the genuinely real stories, and put everything that we are witnessing into the necessary perspective. The people on her street, these shop owners and locals, who at this point, we have come to know better than you would imagine in the short span of the film, are expressing their overall content with living a normal, simple life; running their small stores, on the humble, yet aesthetically vibrant street of Rue Daguerre. They are satisfied with the consistency of an everyday life where you focus on your trade and only concern yourself with what happens in the small stores that are lined up on your street. Varda refers to this early in the film when she calls Rue Daguerre the “neutral” street of Paris — nothing on the outside concerns the people on this street. As I mentioned in the beginning of my review; this is perhaps becoming more and more rare in today’s world, where most parts of the world are always in a rush, always in a hurry to reach a next level of life; rarely are we satisfied with what we have. We always look at others and want more. This film serves as a reminder of the overlooked bliss of living in simplicity.
For the “characters” who revealed that they do dream as we do, the same can be said. One of the more insightful descriptions of the role that dreams play, comes from the baker’s wife, who says:
In other words, even for those who dream of romance, riches, or in her case, traveling — their reality is not influenced by their dreams. Although she dreams of traveling, she goes on to explain that she is not disappointed when she wakes up in her bed the next morning. She happily gets out of bed and heads to her normal, everyday existence at her bakery.
The film officially ends following a short slideshow that features the final portraits of each “character” who was a part of the documentary, all right where they belong — with their family, in their store. Varda leaves us with a final quote that puts her entire film into perspective, as she defines it as much as words can do for such a work of “life-mirroring” art. She says;
“These color Daguerréotypes, these old fashioned images, this collective and almost stereotyped portrait of the men and women of Rue Daguerre… these images and sounds trying to be discreet and unobtrusive faces with the gray silence enveloping Mrs. Blue Thistle — does all this form a report? A homage? An essay? A regret? A reproach? An approach? In the end, it’s a film by their neighbor… “Daguerreotype-Agnes”
In the opening of the film, we are given a definition for the word “Daguerréotype,” which is simply the word for a photograph in early times. As she says herself, this film is a moving picture, full of color and life; but in many of the same ways as an early photograph, it captures reality as it is, and it features normal people living a life reminiscent of a simpler past time.
Daguerréotypes is a masterpiece documentary that does what films, in the purest sense, should do: capture life as it happens and offer us a unique perspective on life all together. It is a portrayal of humanity, life, history, time and love. There is something special and enchanting about watching real people, living their real lives, so long ago in the past — and moreover, in such a beautiful and romantically vibrant city such as Paris, and on a random street at that. This film will make you think, it will make you smile, and it will make you thankful for cinema, and life itself.