Shot around director Agnès Varda’s home on Paris’s Rue Daguerre, Daguerreotypes has a cute pun for a title, and the results at first seem predictably twee: little portraits of shopkeepers at work, ensconced in charming, specialized stores along a quiet street, their foibles tagged and collected. But like many of Varda’s similarly themed explorations, the results are more than they initially seem, casual anthropology with a strongly humanist bent, resulting in a film that’s fueled more by compassion than curiosity.
It’s this compassion that elevates the film, assuring that Varda’s storybook portraiture never feels pat or manipulative, even as she turns these individuals into diorama figures in what becomes an inquiry on the place of the ordinary individual: in life, in the community, even in cinema. The characters she presents are mostly static, the kind usually exploited for background detail or local color, but in Daguerreotypes they get full attention, part of her ongoing effort to shine a spotlight on marginalized figures. In this now bygone world, with its butchers and bakers and perfume makers, everyone seems to have a clearly defined role, carrying out a task that both gives purpose to their lives and identifies them within the community. Varda seems less interested in the increasingly novel nature of this fact than how such status comes to be.
In this context, it seems important that most of those profiled come from places outside Paris, born in Eastern Europe or Algeria or southern France. This suggests Daguerreotypes as something more than a rote portrayal of Varda’s daily errands, more like a tacit examination of the lengths people will go in order to find a place where they belong. She asks the same questions of all of the shopkeepers (where did you come from? When did you get here? Why did you come?), revealing that each has gone through some kind of passage to end up with their respective label. It’s a fact that Varda, who in the intervening years has established herself as cinema’s patron saint of outsiders, clearly finds poignant.
So she dwells on a few scant subjects, attentively watching the elderly perfumist with his quiet wife, whose far-off eyes suggest either profound sadness or some encroaching dementia. Even those who make themselves ridiculous, like the barber who’s always contorting himself into forced-casual poses, or the hammy driving instructor, one eye constantly on the camera, are fleshed out as more than just fodder for jokes.
This was an early foray into documentary for Varda, and while the intimate handheld nature of the film suits it, periodically blossoming into the composed portraits that pop up throughout the film, it also contributes to a prevalent feeling of roughness. This mostly comes across in the often jagged pacing, the long, doting takes, the match cuts used to make easy visual gags. Varda loses her composure during a late foray into a barroom performance by an itinerant illusionist, seemingly overjoyed that such an ideal metaphor has landed inside this tale of everyday magic. The scene drags on and on, and the late onset of a closing segment about dreams consequently feels abrupt. Still, below the simplistic nature of this short, seemingly slight movie lies much more, a portrait of an antique world that digs deep beneath its surface.