Agnès Varda, Daguerréotypes (1975), and Résponses de femmes (1975)
We are about to look at two films by Agnes Varda—the documentary feature Daguerréotypes and the short agit film Résponses de femmes (Women Respond). These two films from 1974-75 were made after a four-year hiatus in Varda’s career during which she gave birth to her son, Mathieu Demy in October 1972. In 1973 German TV offered Varda carte blanche to make a film and Daguerréotypes was the result.
Varda has lived on Rue Daguerre since 1951. She was born in 1928, so Mathieu was born when she was in her mid-1940s––a high risk pregnancy, particularly in the 1970s. Her choice of subject matter enabled her to stay close to home and her new child––subject matter that had a domestic even maternal component (in a voiceover she says that the people she filmed were no more than 50 meters from her front door). As she tells us in her documentary made 20 years later, L’univers de Jacques Demy (1995), she and her husband, director Jacques Demy, were close partners even though they did not collaborate together as filmmakers. They lived on Rue Daguerre and were artisans and even shopkeepers like those in the film (their cutting room was also on Rue Daguerre). One is struck by the fact that so many of the shops are also run by husband/wife teams and in some cases their lives seem to echo those of Varda/Demy. The tailors, who make clothes to order, are shown cutting cloth just as Varda/Demy cut their films. Then there are the hairstylists who have adjoining shops, which share a door to the street: the husband cutting the men’s hair while the wife cutting the woman’s is an evocative parallel. Perhaps like the filmmakers they alternately wait somewhat bored and impatiently for customers and then engage in flurries of intense work.
This film, as one might expect, is very knowing and self-reflexive. It is somewhat of a cliché to point out that the shop windows have as their counterparts the camera frame and the cinema screen. Those on the streets look in the windows and see the film’s subjects. But Varda goes a step further and uses her camera to provide us with windows onto their worlds: we learn where they were born, how the couples met, and when the arrived on Rue Daguerre. We learn their dreams. Likewise, it is important to know that Varda was a photographer as well as a filmmaker. She probably did not end up on Rue Daguerre by chance: what better place for a photographer to set up shop than on a street named after the inventor of the first commercially successful photographic process: Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (18 November 1787 – 10 July 1851). The film’s name is also a play on the daguerréotype name. As Varda makes explicit in a voiceover late in the film, her subjects are types—typical Parisian petit bourgeoisie; but her documentary also provides us with photographic portraits or daguerréotypes. And while the documentary is a motion picture, at various points Varda’s subjects pose for her camera as if it was a mid-19th century photographic camera as they assume formal, static pose for several seconds at various points in the film.
The film itself can be further appreciated if situated within the framework of certain simple theoretical and historical understandings about cinema which were widespread at the time—ideas promulgated by André Bazin and Georges Sadoul among others. Per Bazin, cinema had its basis in photography—its links to Daguerre were thus strong and direct. Secondly, the film alternates between what was often considered the two fundamental tendencies in cinematic practice: the “Lumière way”––with its shots of local people, places and family (thus the appearance of Varda’s daughter Rosalie Demy at the beginning of the film is crucial), and the “Méliès way” as evidenced by the appearance of the magician Mystag at different points in the film. Potential deceptive in its simplicity, Daguerréotypes is a rich and rewarding film that merits sustained analysis.
This might be the place to mention the ways in which Daguerréotypes resonate with the theme that unifies this weekend’s films—“Remnants of Utopia.” The film makes visible, even as it constructs, a community of people who live and work on Rue Daguerre. First, as Varda shows, the people who own one shop are also the customers of other shopkeepers in the films––again not unlike Varda herself. Second, she actively constructs this community, intensifying its interactions by bringing them together to watch the magician. (They did not appear there by chance: this was the staged/Méliès-like portions of the film in more ways than one). The film is a celebration of community in its utopic dimensions. Although the documentary possesses an elegiac quality, as some have pointed out; the community has the capacity for renewal though in a somewhat different form. The newest shop owner, who runs a grocery, is from Africa and he is key to the renewal process. In this respect Varda’s afterpiece, Daguerréotype 2005 (2005), reveals that the person in the 1975 film who still works on Rue Daguerre had been a shop assistant the Algerian-run grocery, which he subsequently bought. The nature of community changes over time. Indeed one might say that a community best understands itself as a self-conscious community at the moment at which it is about to disintegrate: certainly it is true that many of the shopkeepers in the 1975 film are nearer the end of their careers. Nonetheless, as Varda in 2005 points out, and a visit to rue Daguerre can confirm, there is—in this case––both continuity and renewal.
The film’s exhibition history is not clearly documented in the literature. It was broadcast by ZDF, the German television channel that funded the film, on June 24, 1975. It apparently played at the Cannes Film Festival in the previous month and won the Prix du Cinéma d’Art et d’Essai 1975. I saw it there, (or possibly when it played at the Women’s Film Festival in New York City in September 1976). Shot in super-16mm and blown up to 35mm at some point, it likely had a run in Parisian theaters. In any case, Daguerréotypes was broadcast on French TV, TF1, on November 29, 1976. I confess that Daguerréotypes has stuck in my mind all these years as an impressive achievement, which is not an opinion that I have necessarily shared with others. The one book on Varda in English, Alison Smith’s Agnès Varda (St. Martin’s Press, 1998), only mentions it in passing. Dudley Andrew also had his reservations, considering it a minor work—though perhaps this screening will change his mind. From today’s vantage point, at least we can see the film as anticipating the later stages of Varda’s remarkable career as elements of Daguerréotypes were to be recast in her remarkable documentary The Gleaners and I (2000) –made some 25 years later—which I showed earlier this year in my class on World Documentary.
La Résponses de femmes (Women Respond) was nominated as Best Short Film – Documentary (Meilleur court métrage documentaire) for the César –the French equivalent of the Oscars in 1977.