Rue Daguerre in the 14th arrondisement of Paris is a lively market street known for the family-run businesses that still provide la vie de quartier, the neighbourhood-centred way of life that is disappearing from the greater metropolis. The street also has a long artistic history dated back to the interwar years: Simone de Beauvoir and Brassaï lived, loved and worked there and thereabouts, before being buried locally in the grand cimitière de Montparnasse.
After sixty years on the street, Agnès Varda told Paris City Hall in 2012 about why it was (and remains) such a great place to live:
I settled here on Rue Daguerre around 1951. I loved this neighbourhood… there was absolutely everything you needed to live – a bakery, a butcher, a coiffeur, a hardware store, a tailor, a grocer’s shop, a clock repairman –and I enjoyed that very much, having everything I need, just down my street.
While many artists and writers made their work on or close to rue Daguerre, only one made her work about it. In her 1974-75 documentary Daguerreotypes – a title that puns on the early photographs of Louis Daguerre, after whom the street is named; and types, kinds of people –Agnès Varda makes two of her unassuming, seemingly modest propositions: what if, just as la vie de quartier needs its baker, butcher, coiffeur, tailor, and grocer and clock repairman (all among the types she films), it also needs its local filmmaker?
And what if, by staying close to home, a filmmaker could see the whole world?
Varda had learned her internationalist localism in Cuba, where she took thousands of photographs of revolutions in progress. In Havana, she met the filmmakers of ICAIC, the brand-new Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos, who were developing a form of filmmaking to serve revolutionary ends by showing mutual aid and collective education. Varda captures glorious images of the young Afro-Cuban filmmaker Sara Gómez – like Varda, one of the few women working in a male-dominated field – as she cha-chas in the street in 1963.
When Varda was back in Paris making Daguerreotypes a decade later, Gómez made her only feature, the astonishing documentary-style De cierta manera (One Way or Another, 1974), which maps the impact of the revolution through a local Havana community facing displacement from their neighbourhood. So when Varda came to film her own street, she did so rich with the sense not only of its own complexities but also how those linked it to similar and different communities that were defining themselves across the world.
Varda had moved into the neighbourhood postwar, an art history student and photographer newly arrived from Sète in the south of France, where she had grown up during WWII and where she would return to make her first film in 1954, La Pointe Courte, contrasting a pair of young lovers searching for privacy with the vivid public life of the fishing neighbourhood of the title. In a telling observation about her own long settlement in the area, she pointed out to City Hall that:
All the shopkeepers that I filmed on Rue Daguerre had immigrated from French regions and arrived at the Gare Montparnasse. They settled just within reach of the train station – they remained attached to their homeland and I found that very moving.
In particular, the bakers – who, in late middle age, are still as deliriously in love as any of the young romantic couples in Varda’s or Demy’s great fiction features – tell a personal story that, like Varda’s, maps onto the great urban migration after the war.
At the pharmacy where her teenage daughter Rosalie buys perfume, Varda finds another love story, between the dignified beauty Marcelle Debroussian and her husband. Marcelle’s loss of memory due to dementia is the first treatment of a subject – ageing and memory – that will shape Varda’s late work. Daguerreotypes becomes an album of sense-memories – fresh bread, snippets of conversation, a magic show – that capture the world that Marcelle is losing, and return it to her.
You can also sense Varda’s hunger for these daily interactions. With a two year old infant – son Mathieu – at home, she needed to find a way to make a film that didn’t take her far from home. In her biodoc Beaches of Agnès, she demonstrates how she would haul an electrical cable through her letterbox and down the street for her camera, so she wasn’t dependent on her subjects’ electricity. Using the word “cord,” she suggests it’s also an umbilical connection between her own family community, and the street beyond that will, implicitly, help raise her children just as she helped to document and preserve the unique community in which she – l’auteure de quartier – made her work.
Love Your Local is also supported by Film Hub Scotland, part of the BFI’s Film Audience Network, and funded by Screen Scotland and National Lottery funding from the BFI.