Saturday, December 10, 2011

Agnes Varda's DAGUERRÉOTYPES gets a real--if tardy--theatrical at Maysles Cinema

For just one week, beginning this coming Monday, December 12, a movie will be receiving its very belated U.S. theatrical debut -- 35 years belated! -- as DAGUERRÉOTYPES, a 1976 documentary by Agnès Varda opens at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem. No slouch in the filmmkaing department, narrative or documentary, Ms Varda (pictured below) has been making movies since 1955 and is justly regarded, by those who really know, as every bit as important a part of La Nouvelle Vague as was Truffaut or Godard.

Since the early 1990s, Varda has concentrated almost exclusively on the documentary form, giving us a throng of wondeful films, of which The Beaches of Agnès is the most recently seen. Back in 1976, when she made Daguerréotypes, the western world was so different from today that I can't imagine what young people watching this movie will think. In the film, Varda simply shows us the shopkeepers who are her neighbors along Rue Daguerre in the 14th Arrondissement, the street named for Louis Daguerre, the man who developed an early photographic process known as the Daguerreotype.

These shopkeepers provide the meat and heart of the film -- they and the delightful magician who both introduces the movie and then, midway, puts on a magic show to which the neighbors all come: the butcher (above, with this wife), the baker, the plumber, the hairdresser, the driving instructor, and more. Varda talks with them about their history, where they come from, how they met their mate, how they earn their living, and, as usual, she manages to draw from them the kind of magic that always seems to make her subjects so fascinating and her films such delights.

Especially strange and moving are the elderly couple (above) -- he's a perfume maker, she helps serve the customers in their shop -- that begin the film and pop up throughout it. He seems ever smiling and full of energy; she seems incredibly sad. Is she in pain, dying slowly, or just unhappy at having every dream in life crushed? (Or, as I have now been told -- just after posting -- perhaps the onset of dementia.) We never find out, and this is one time I wish Varda had probed a little more deeply. Yet you feel like she would never want to impinge on her subjects' private lives, at least no further than they themselves were wiling to go or to share.

The magic show, interestingly, is woven into scenes of these neighbors working (the baker is a special visual treat). While it would have nice to have had the chance to see the film around the time it was made, watching it now offers another kind of bonus: the opportunity to view history and the kind of life we most likely shall not see again. If the French are saving time capsules, this movie is a must for inclusion.

Also on the program is a 20-minute short from 1965, unseen by me, called Elsa la rose, directed by Varda and Raymond Zanchi, and narrated by Michel Piccolli, that documents a famous literary romance of the day between Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet.

Daguerréotypes (78 minutes, released via Cinema Guild) opens Monday, December 12, and plays through December 18 at the Maysles Cinema. Click here to order tickets, and here (then peruse the left hand column of the screen) for directions and/or other information.

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