Architecture on Film: Agnès Varda Triple Bill

Through the films Daguerréotypes, Diary of a Pregnant Woman and The So-Called Caryatids, Agnès Varda’s presents cinematic explorations of her Parisienne neighbours – from lovers and drifters to shopkeepers and statues – via the magic of film.


06:30pm, Tuesday, 21 May 2019


08:15pm, Tuesday, 21 May 2019


Cinema 1
Barbican Centre, Level -2
Silk St, London, EC2Y 8DS



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This is a past event

We are delighted that this screening will be introduced by Isabelle McNeill (Philomathia Fellow in French at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge; author, Memory and the Moving Image: French Film in the Digital Era (Edinburgh University Press, 2010); co-founder, Cambridge Film Trust).

Diary of a Pregnant Woman [L’opéra-mouffe]

Varda’s second film sings with the compassion and formal creativity that would become her hallmark as a filmmaker, through an ‘opera’ of Paris’ Rue Mouffetard. Made whilst Varda herself was pregnant (her belly is the film’s first shot), the filmmaker combines documentation of street life with fictive staged scenes, realism with surrealism, to birth a film that observes and imagines the texture of urban life, paying close attention to the lives of the less fortunate through the gaze of a distinctly female flâneur.

France, 1958, Agnés Varda, 17 mins



"Daguerréotypes is not a film about the Rue Daguerre (a picturesque street in the fourteenth district of Paris where I live), it is a film about one block of that street (between number 70 and number 90). This is not an inquiry nor a sociological study of the inhabitants, even though it tells a great deal about the ‘silent majority’. It is more or less a casual look at my neighbors. The film could be an archive for archeologists and sociologists in the next century. As I shot L’opéra-mouffe on rue Mouffetard, Daguerréotypes is my L’opéra-daguerre."

– Agnès Varda

With great humanism and tenderness, Varda explores the lives and labour of her immediate neighbours. Aided by the magician Mystag, Varda conjures the 90 metres that surround her front door (an area defined by the cable run through her own letter box that powered her equipment) into a cinematic living museum. A time capsule of a block of a road, a celebration of Parisienne urbanity, Varda enables her street’s shopkeeper’s to become protagonists in a demonstration of the cinema and lives that lie, often overlooked, on the doorstep.

France, 1975, Agnès Varda, 75 min


The So-Called Caryatids

Through Baudelaire’s poetry, Rameau’s music, and her own singular cinematic and pensive observations, Varda gives voice to the caryatids of Paris – the classical female sculptures used as architectural supports or pillars on building facades. An essay film full of playfulness, poetry and insight, with some of the silent women who literally keep Paris standing at its heart.

France, 1984, Agnés Varda, 13 mins

Programme Notes by Isabelle McNeill

In the films of Agnès Varda, Paris is a site of fruitful ambivalence. The acclaimed filmmaker and artist, who died in March this year, first came to live in Paris in the 1950s as a student of Art History. As an apprehensive ‘provinciale’, the city evoked for her ‘a diffuse fear of the big city and its dangers, of getting lost there alone and misunderstood, or being pushed around’ (Varda 1994: 48). Yet Paris was also a place of artistic and intellectual discovery: exciting and full of potential. Its unnerving strangeness and crowds resonated with the work of Surrealists such as René Magritte and André Breton, who envisaged Paris as a catalysing space of chance encounters. Although Varda was always on the move, she settled in Paris. She located her production and distribution company, Ciné-Tamaris, in the rue Daguerre, where she lived off-and-on for most of her life. As Varda points out in Daguerréotypes, the street is named after Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who invented an early form of photography. It is a particularly apt location for Varda, who began her career as a photographer and persistently explored the relation between the still and the moving image. Varda’s own home in the rue Daguerre is a part of her oeuvre: it makes regular appearances in her films and television work. As she wrote in the booklet that comes with her DVD box set, Toute Varda: ‘I live there, I work there, it’s my default backdrop’. Initially an outsider, Varda made a creative, cinematic space for herself in Paris, allowing her to document the city with both intimacy and distance. It is telling that in her autobiographical film, Beaches of Agnès (2008), Varda stressed that her real interest and inspiration is other people. One way of thinking about Varda’s work is that it inscribes relations: between self and other, body and city, animate and inanimate. Each of the three films in tonight’s programme explores the city in these terms. 

Diary of a Pregnant Woman was made while Varda was pregnant with her daughter Rosalie and a title card emphasises that it was made from the perspective of a pregnant woman. It is a ‘notebook’ (‘carnet’) of sequences filmed in the ‘Mouffe’ area of the 5th arrondissement in Paris, whose central axis is the market lining the rue Mouffetard. Images of market produce and people talking, drinking and walking in the street are juxtaposed with interior and courtyard scenes of a young couple, as well as poetic images conveying anxieties and fantasies of pregnancy. The film’s French title, L’Opéra-Mouffe evokes the French tradition of the Opéra-Bouffe (from ‘bouffon’, comical), a tradition of humorous, light-hearted operas that were given this name by the nineteenth-century composer Jacques Offenbach. A sung commentary reminds us of the artificiality of Varda’s presentation of real, everyday life – an aspect emphasised from the start as we hear an orchestra tuning up, and at the end when a shop front being closed is linked to a theatrical ‘curtain’.

Varda also highlights the playful subjectivity of her documentary practice in Daguerréotypes, which opens with a shot of the magician Mystag (whose show features later in the film) standing theatrically in front of the Eiffel Tower. Like her earlier short, Daguerréotypes offers an intimate perspective by filming the people and shops near where she lived, filming only the area that she could reach with her 90m-long lighting cable plugged in at home. Her son Mathieu was a baby at the time and she later realised that the restrictive cable enabled her to stay close to him: ‘It was the umbilical cord, it wasn’t yet really cut!’ (Varda 1994: 143). Cinematic technology literally charts a relation between Varda and her neighbours in the film, but it also records a way of life that is disappearing. The unseen shadow of the newly-built Montparnasse Tower hovers over the film, a symbol of an urban, consumerist modernity that will crush the small community businesses on which the film focuses. Creating her own daguerreotypes through affectionate, awkwardly-posed filmed photographs, Varda wonders about the ‘immobilisme’ of her neighbours, however. They seem to reject dreaming, so Varda reinserts Surrealist incongruity into their world through her ludic juxtaposition of daily life and magic show.

Varda’s films show us both the beauty and the disturbing tensions of the quotidian. In The So-Called Caryatids, camera movement makes us look up and notice the often naked female forms that adorn nineteenth-century Parisian architecture. These supporting women have become part of the furniture, unnoticed, yet nonetheless on display in service of a commodifying architectural grandeur. The film revels in their beauty whilst revealing the oppressive ideas about women congealed in their stony forms. Contemporaneous with Baudelaire’s poetry and Offenbach’s operas, the caryatids’ historical meanings emerge through interaction with the poetry and music on Varda’s soundtrack. In all three films, Varda’s ambivalent gaze is grounded in a woman’s embodied experience yet cognizant of the transformative power of the audiovisual image. In this way, Paris – one of the most photographed cities in the world – is shifted from a postcard image into a vision that is at once subjective, critical, intimate and challenging.

Works cited: Varda, Agnès. 1994. Varda par Agnès. Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma / Ciné-Tamaris. (translations author’s own).