In Beaches of Agnes, one charming scene in a movie full of them was of Agnes Varda explaining how she shot Daguerreotypes by snaking an extension cord through the mail slot of her front door and only filmed the shops within range of that cord. She and Jacques Demy lived on Rue Daguerre in Paris, in a home that doubled as workshop and movie set on occasion. Captivated by the owner of a local shop, Varda decided to film every local shopkeeper she could. What came together was an engrossing little film that captures with great intimacy the rhythms of commerce seen in the small businesses. This does not sound like a fertile idea, but you can count on the most iconoclastic of the French New Wave directors to do something fascinating with it.
The shopkeepers eventually seem to ignore the camera, conducting business as usual while Varda films; we are always conscious of her presence, and as such become observers in the shops amongst the crowd. She described these people as a silent, conservative population that forlornly anticipated the end of small neighborhood shops in France. In Daguerreotypes, the shop owners all work in the shops alongside their spouses, and so the majority of their dialogue is wordless, a series of gestures people use to communicate with someone they have lived with for 20-50 years. We see the baker quietly prepare the baguettes, shoveling them carefully in an oven with a expert flick to retrieve the wooden tray. The butcher takes an order, cuts the meat with surgical precision and deposits the prize onto a scale with a remarkable economy of movement. A driving instructor conducts a class out of one of the shops, noting how often he has nightmares about his students. In The Blue Thistle, all perfumes are handcrafted; many customized to the needs of the customer; his wife watches silently. A grocery is so cramped with food items that every surface appears stacked to the ceiling; I could not help but jealously eye the cheese table with its embarrassment of riches. They swiftly serve the customers, many of whom they have known for a long time. Varda describes the people who move through the Rue Daguerre as wearing a ‘dreadful mask, yet who behave with expected charm’. Everyone looks the part.
Interestingly, all of the shopkeepers come from elsewhere, many from rural France, a few emigrated from other countries such as Algeria. Varda notes in the narration “The pavement smells of soil” tracked in from the many home villages that brought these people here to ply their trade. Conversations are captured from the people; “With black hands one makes white bread” is a particularly interesting phrase. The business owners are introduced with a blink effect on the camera shutter; we are always within the documentary, and the director takes care to ensure we never feel like outsiders. The doors open, and then they shutter, the daily rhythm of Rue Daguerre’s lifeblood coming to rest.
There is a strange framing device utilized with a traveling magician; he puts on a show attended by all of the shopkeepers. As he boasts of feats that boggle the mind and stir the soul with magic, his illusions are intercut with the mundane. Or at least moments that we think are mundane. As the conjurer eats fire, the baker retrieves a magnificent baguette from the oven. He puts one audience member to sleep, freezing time; a watchmaker painstakingly repairs an ancient clock. A fake knife is stabbed through an arm spouting similarly fake blood; the butcher prepares a side of beef that would entice a king. Varda notes dryly “He will lull an already still world.” The works of superstition are overshadowed by scenes of regular trade that become a marvelous show in themselves. Making a living in the difficult economy – now that requires some magic.
If there must be a point to Daguerreotypes, perhaps it is in the ability to derive wonder from the most common experiences we have. The intimate moments in these small shops introduce us to people who labor their entire lives to keep such independent businesses going. We may soon live in a world where no small independent shops exist, and we all live within a 15 minute walk to the nearest chain shop/restaurant/cafe where we gratefully spend to receive a predictable mediocrity rather than benefit from more skilled hands. This is not a political or economic howl, though. This is a film of quiet observation from a wise and gentle filmmaker. We are generously introduced into Agnes Varda’s neighborhood, and can take whatever lessons, if any, we would like; most of all we feel thankful to have spent the time on Rue Daguerre.