"We join Varda in spending a day inside their shops, attempting fly-on-the-wall documentary style realism"Daryan Shamkhali / unsplash

In her 1975 documentary Daguérreotypes, Varda manages to capture the elusive myth of Paris and pin it down onto the road she lives on in the Left Bank, the Rue Daguerre. It’s a row of tradesmen: old-timey shops crammed full of goods, trading in francs, pairs of elderly married couples running each shop, recalling a simpler way of shopping pre-Amazon. We join Varda in spending a day inside their shops, attempting fly-on-the-wall documentary style realism. She gets occasionally side-lined by other interests: a series of street signs, a montage of hands exchanging money (her own included – look for the sparkly green ring) and the second half is interspersed with a local magic performance. Many of the shopkeepers she interviews have moved from the countryside to Paris, chasing the Balzacian dream of French tradition which is built into the allure of the city. They seem like relics from the past, walking fossils who represent a quaint dream of ’autrefois’ and yet still clinging on in a rapidly modernising metropole.

“The illusion is broken, we are brought from one metropole to another”

Although the street is declared an apolitical void (it’s bad for business, they claim), Varda sneaks in references to current events, as well as her own convictions, through her filmmaking despite the censorship of the darker side of French history. One woman is a pied noir, born in Algeria and moving to France in 1961, the year of the as-yet unacknowledged, brutal Algerian War. A participant in a magic trick opens a newspaper, slowly and clearly displaying the headline: ’l’avortement, c’est le temps pour la vérité’.

Abortion had just been legalised earlier that year due to feminist campaigning. Varda took an active part in this feminist wave, her name appearing in the infamous list of 343 women declaring they had had an illegal abortion. Although nothing is explicitly said, the messages are present and largely speak for themselves especially due to the extreme taboo surrounding any discussion of France’s colonial troubles in Algeria.

“Fly-on-the-wall documentary style realism”

The film ends in Varda’s trademark style as she inserts herself, both as filmmaker and neighbour. She signs off the film as an act of collaboration: ‘Daguérreotypes-Agnès’. Ending on this gesture of neighbourly love, we move to our next film City of Contrasts which similarly focuses on street-level documentation of the everyday. As it begins, we glimpse, through trees and from afar, a white-brick, official-looking building. Triumphant music plays, the camera pans down slowly over the building, a sign reads: Hotel de Ville. A soft, feminine voice laments for her beautiful France and we see a building of French officialdom, gleaming white amidst the blue and green of the natural scenery. We hear a record scratch, the tape distorts, we see a Senegalese flag flying. A male voice interrupts: ’Ma petite, ça, c’est Dakar!’ (My dear, this, this is Dakar!). The illusion is broken, we are brought from one metropole to another.

“Barbers, tailors, fortune tellers, fabric markets and flower stalls bursting in technicolor”

The rest of this short film by Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty follows along similar lines: the French femme imposes a stereotype on the inhabitants of the city for the male narrator – voiced by the director himself – to strike down. This creates a reaffirming commentary on the city and its citizens, clearly refuting colonial fantasies and misconceptions which abound to this day. This dialogue is layered over street scenes, focusing on the contrasting colonial and Senegalese architecture (hence the title, City of Contrasts) as well as the many vendors and shopkeepers making a living there.

Just like Varda’s film, artisanal crafts and providers of everyday goods are privileged: barbers, tailors, fortune tellers, fabric markets and flower stalls bursting in technicolor. Mambéty’s short provides an intricate and human-focused exploration of Dakar while drawing attention to France’s export of both architecture and imperial exoticism.

Daguérreotypes (1975) by Agnès Varda, 80 minutes
City of Contrasts (1969) by Djibril Diop Mambéty, 22 minutes


Mountain View

Celine Sciamma, the feminist figure of French cinema

Total Length: 102 minutes, the most manageable length so far in this series, and a great deal shorter than the latest Dune.

Best accompanied with: Mambéty’s feature length film Touki Bouki, the standard French snack of cheese and bread.

Recommended if you like: Films where nothing really happens, a preoccupation with the mundane.

Where to watch: Daguérreotypes is available to rent on Amazon, City of Contrasts can be found on the Solidarity film archive (found at solidaritycinema.com, an amazing resource), and both are available on DVD in Cambridge libraries.