“Time such as it passes in the Blue Thistle,” observes Agnès Varda, “made me sensitive to that of the tradespeople. I had a desire to go through the shop windows of the street, to be inside with artisans and salesmen, in the slowness and patience of their work during the hours of waiting.” As she speaks, you’re looking at one of them, the keeper of a perfume shop called the Blue Thistle. He’s at work, waiting for customers, and they also wait, as Varda adds, as time is shaped by “those mysteries of daily exchanges.”
During the early moments of Daguerréotypes, Varda’s portrait of “some people” on the street where she lives, 88 rue Daguerre, you also see the shopkeeper’s wife, her hair pulled back, her mind wandering, her face watchful and weary. She sits as he works, or she walks to the shop’s front window to gaze onto the street, the passing pedestrians and occasional car. Inside, you’re encouraged to notice the shelves filled with bottles, waiting to be selected and filled with scents; Varda’s daughter Rosalie chooses a wide round bottle and jasmine water, then waits while the man prepares her purchase. The camera stays cose on their faces and hands, the exchange one example of how the world works, how individuals share time.
Time forms another sort of frame for the documentary: filmed in 1975, Daguerréotypes opens 12 December at the Maysles Cinema, incredibly, its first New York theatrical run, and yet it is hardly dated. Certainly, the outfits and vehicles and hairstyles evoke an era long gone, but the conversations and interactions suggest the sameness of then and now. A couple of women pause on the sidewalk, laughing over signs of their own transitions (“My memory is failing… It’s normal, I’m almost 70,” as the other nods, “And I, 77”). Another woman plays an accordion on the street, the sound enchantingly old-world and also quotidian, stereotypical and magical.
The film brings this combination of effects comes to its surface, as it arranges a series of scenes to connect a magician’s show with everyday business. As Mystag performs, gesturing grandly to show off his interlocking rings and knives and flames (“I’m going to eat fire,” he announces as the audience claps, “I’ll swallow the flame!”), the film cuts to the less sensational activities of the butcher or the baker, thwacking at meat and sliding raw dough into a stone oven. As the baker leans over his table, kneading the globs of dough, another shot has him posed for the camera, recalling how he met his wife (I” delivered bread in her village, we have four children”). Cut to the wife: “When I met Henri,” she smiles, “I liked his work. I’m happy to be the baker’s wife.”
Such relations—thrilling and unremarkable, accidental and deliberate, surprising and utterly predictable—alter the courses of lives. The film shows the workers as individuals and as couples, through windows and through doorways: they emerge from their shops, they reenter, they open doors and close doors. Men and women—the driving instructor, the tailor, the mechanic, and their wives—look recall their birthplaces and how they met each other. They’ve come to Paris from elsewhere, from villages and other countries. As they’ve made their trades into arts, they’ve come to see themselves anew, they’ve forged relationships and found themselves.
Observing diurnal details, the film finds patterns and wonders. The Blue Thistle keeper observes his wife and marvels at what her fading mind, what it might mean or comprehend. “The sun goes down around six pm,” he says, “She wants to go out, but she doesn’t, she doesn’t want to leave.” As he speaks, you see her: she walks slowly out the door, pauses, then returns. The shot cuts the butcher, eyes closed as he lies back on his reclining chair. Varda says in voice-over, “We may all have a desire to leave in the evenings. No doubt we are prisoners in our lives. To dream is an illness for those who are normal.” The butcher rests on. “It’s actually the silence of a heavy sleep,” says Varda. “It’s immobility. I think our dreams are mixed up with our work.”
And so it appears, when the butcher begins to describe his dreams: “When tired, we think about our haunting work,” he says. His own are indeed entwined with his work, concerning a customer, whether she’s satisfied. His wife, for her part, insists she has no time for dreams. Asked about his dreams, the mechanic looks baffled for a moment, then turns to his wife: “What do I dream about?” he asks her. She stands to his side, and explains, “You’re afraid, you wake up, you want to leave the bed and escape. I turn on the light,” she says, turning to the camera, “And he stops. Ah yes, he remembers, when he was a boy he went sleepwalking, “down three stories,” ending up on the street. “The cold pavement woke me up,” he finishes.
Whatever he dreams now, that moment of waking returns to him. His eyes soften as he speaks about his wife, as he turns to her, as he finds comfort in her. The shopkeepers and their wives form complex partnerships: the tailor and his wife sew together, the butcher and his wife tend to the orders together. Husbands and wives take care of each other. The film ends as the perfumer and his wife walk toward to their shop: he looks into the camera which waits for them to come close. She’s dreaming of times they no longer share. They smile, they walk into their shop, and they close the door.