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Life is but a dream
The film opens with narration explaining, politely as if we already knew, that a daguerreotype is an early type of photograph produced by Louis Daguerre in 1839. (1839!) The opening credits conclude, and we’re off to the races, watching the proprietors of Le Chardon Bleu, a shop near Agnès Vardes’ home in Paris. It brings to mind the type of shop you might find in any large city today; shelves filled with cute knick-knacks that may not be of much use. However, they may bring joy in the viewing and the imagining of their contribution to a complete home. (I immediately remind myself while watching the film that this was made in 1975 and that the total homogenization of retail has yet to occur.)
Despite the connotation that the shop brings to mind for a contemporary viewer, this shop is of a different era. Varda’s daughter regularly comes to this shop to buy perfume, and she requests the shopkeepers let her pick out a bottle for the fragrance. The two older proprietors happily oblige. Meanwhile, the camera pans around, showing special creams for blackheads, dandruff, dry skin, etc. Oh, how the times haven’t changed.
What ensues for the next 80 minutes is a lovely, uninterrupted, and voyeuristic view into the small shops that make up the Rue Daguerre, where Agnès Varda lived for most of her life in Paris. It’s a film that elicits some of the culture shocks of travel, that you may crave, in an 80-minute package. The film made me think of my favorite shop in San Francisco; Le Beau Market on Nob Hill. To drop by one’s local market may seem like a standard exercise in running an errand. Still, in the precious time I spent living only a block away, every visit was a tiny pilgrimage to a space with clear thought and intention behind every inch of shelf space. Every dollar I’ve spent at Le Beau made me feel like I was engaging in the micro-culture of the neighborhood. Whether it was the Acme bread I bought for sandwiches, the Columbus lunchmeat, or the Papalote salsa, a trip to the local store felt like an act of community engagement (Albeit an easily accessible act.)
Where were we? Oh yeah, Agnes! For a film that purports to be about a place, Rue Daguerre slowly turns its head to be about the people that make up the place. We’re introduced to all the proprietors that make Rue Daguerre what it is. People who have departed this earth look straight into the camera’s lens and introduce themselves. At the risk of sounding like the Wes Anderson version of this meme, it’s hard to imagine that Wes Anderson didn’t take a lot of queues from the visual choices that Varda continually makes in her films, including Daguerréotypes. (See header image as exhibit A in this case.) Varda digs into how some of the married shop owners met; stories ensue about dance halls of ill-repute; crow’s feet crinkle as subjects look away from the camera, lost in the memory of meeting their loved ones.
A magician acts as our throughline through the bakers, clothiers, parfumiers, and everyone that makes up the tapestry of shops on this small street in Paris. I’m still not sure what this is meant to represent. Is community its own type of magic? Is it rare to encounter a street like the one presented in the film? Throughout the film, and especially towards the end, we see hands; hands at work, making life possible and providing a living for their owners, and sometimes making dreams into reality. It’s magic in its purest form.
If you’d like to take a perfectly pedestrian vacation (my favorite type of vacation), you’d be hard-pressed to find a better ticket than Daguerréotypes. This is an optimistic film that finds the joy of the street you live on; a film that understands that life is short and sometimes can feel like a dream. Before you know it, you’ll wake up.
Directed by Agnès Varda
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
The best place to watch this week’s film is on the Criterion Channel. It was recently restored by Ciné Tamaris in 2014, under the supervision of Varda herself. I was very close to recommending The Beaches of Agnès, which felt perfect for ‘Hot Doc Summer’ but is two hours long. I’ve gotten the feedback that one of the best parts of Movie Night is when a film allows the reader to roll the dice on a movie that is 90 minutes or less. I can’t agree more: we need more 90-minute films!
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