Saturday, December 10, 2011

Varda’s Daguerreotypes

They are the sort of shops from the picture books of our youth. When as adults, we wander into the occasional butcher shop or old time apothecary, we wonder how they can live on such presumably low margins. Even in 1975 Paris, they were anachronistic, but Agnès Varda’s Rue Daguerre neighborhood was filled with them. She would document those stores and the men and women who kept them in Daguerréotypes, which finally has a proper New York theatrical run starting this coming Monday, roughly thirty six after its French debut and about three months after its American DVD release. Better late than never.

Varda will be our eyes and ears, but Mystag the Magician will be our guide through this neighborhood of working class respectability. Frankly, Mystag was quite the old devil, incorporating a lot of theatrical blood and acerbic wit into his bargain basement illusions. However, most Daguerréotypes, as Varda dubs them in a deliberate allusion to the early pioneering French photo process, are modest and hardworking. One would expect the shops are largely family affairs, handed down from father to son, yet most of her subjects moved to Paris from the provinces.

While there is still a consistent demand for barbers and tailors, one has to wonder how some establishments remained in business, especially that accordion store. Of course, the Daguerréotypes are hardly lavish consumers themselves. In fact, Daguerréotypes is a timely reminder of the inherent conservatism of the higher end of the working class and the lower spectrum of the bourgeoisie. This is exactly the sort of stock Margaret Thatcher came from. The Daguerréotypes toil long hours, but are family-oriented. Most married young after falling in love at first sight, because it is not practical to waste time on long courtships. It is also worth noting, not once in the film did any of Varda’s neighbors complain about how much more the presidents of Citroën or Renault were making compared to them.

Throughout the film, Varda treats the shopkeepers with respect. Aside from Mystag’s bizarrely cinematic act, there is no real narrative to follow. It is simply a day in the life of a pleasant corner of the 14th Arrondissement. Yet, its nostalgia for a time and place not yet past is quite endearing.

Daguerréotypes will screen with Varda’s nonfiction short Elsa la Rose (co-directed with Raymond Zanchi), which is actually a chillier film, despite documenting the great literary romance of Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet. Though critical of the excesses of Stalinism and the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the celebrated writers remained fixtures of the French Communist Party, presumably because the Party valued their cultural cachet. Evidently, theirs was a true lifelong love affair.

However, Varda and Zanchi’s embrace of the Nouvelle Vague filmmaking vocabulary, including frequent freeze frames, multiply-repeated sequences, and soundtrack gamesmanship consistently keep viewers at an emotional distance. Frankly, Rose is more interesting as a product of its filmmaking moment than for any insight offered into the lives of its subjects. Regardless, Daguerréotypes is the main event. A distinctly humanistic film, it is well worth seeing, either on DVD or during its premiere theatrical run at the Maysles Cinema for one week starting this Monday (12/12-12/18).