John Maloof, the film’s director and narrator, happened upon suitcases filled with negatives at an auction. Though he traditionally discards negatives in favor of their more valuable containers, he decided to look through some of the photos and was shocked at their quality. He found a note with the photographer’s name—Vivian Maier—in the suitcase and Googled her; he found nothing. Drawn to learn more about her, he set out on a mission to learn who exactly this unknown photographer was and what drove her to take such a volume of photographs. The ensuing journey is equal parts intriguing and puzzling. Vivian bounced from family to family during her time as a nanny and seemingly gave each a different impression. Some called her Viv, at her request; others wouldn’t dare call her anything but Miss Vivian, also at her request. Some thought she was from France, given her accent or her own admission; others were convinced her accent was fake and knew nothing of her family. All agreed, though, that she was an intensely private person who wouldn’t have allowed her photography to be displayed during her lifetime. The film thus explores its own existence and the ethics of exposing an immense—but intentionally hidden—talent posthumously.
Though slow at times and a lesson in why film narrators rarely look directly into the camera, the film is ultimately a fascinating character study. This woman is mysterious in more ways than I can count—she even spelt her own name in many different ways, whether Mayer or Meyer or another variation. Vivian Maier’s street images are striking to critics and the public alike, but her still bizarre life story steals the show.