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Daguerréotypes

Originally shot in the mid-’70s, Agnès Varda’s vérité documentary Daguerréotypes has aged splendidly, acquiring flavors that would’ve been inconceivable at the time it was made. Back then, Varda hauled her camera around her Paris neighborhood on the Rue Daguerre, intending to capture what went on in the little shops in what was at the time one of the city’s most bustling commercial districts. As Varda explains early on in her voiceover narration, she wasn’t looking for esoterica. She filmed butchers, bakers, tailors, grocers, hairstylists, driving-school instructors… people she saw every day. And her vignettes are short: just a transaction or two, cut together with interviews about the merchants’ pasts, and portrait-style shots of them puttering about their businesses. Sometimes Varda brings the camera in close and loose, approximating reality, and sometimes she stands back and takes in the tableau as though it were a piece of art, as in one shot of a salon where the customers and the poster-sized photos of well-coiffed models become fused into a single plane.

Those cinematic qualities of Daguerréotypes extend to the editing. Throughout the film, Varda shows a street magician at work, and intercuts his tricks with footage of her other subjects stocking shelves and baking bread and the like, implying that these common tasks are themselves a kind of magic. But Varda’s greatest feat of juxtaposition is accidental. Watching Daguerréotypes now is an exercise in time-travel, as what was framed as mundane-but-lovely in 1976 now seems downright exotic. It isn’t just the fashions that date this documentary, or the subjects’ shared experiences of the European turmoil of the mid-20th-century. It’s also their work itself, which is like a relic of some ancient civilization. The most haunting figures in Daguerréotypes are an old married couple who run a parfumerie and sundries shop. As the owner mixes scents by hand, his wife sighs and stares out the front window, looking tired and perhaps disengaged. They already seem to be on their way out, trailing what Varda so evocatively describes as “a scent of suspended inventory.”

Filed Under: Film

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