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19.2.05

Agnès Varda

Other Resources:

Vincent Canby, Agnes Varda's Loving Work About Her Husband (New York Times, September 25, 1991)

Peter Kemp, Jacquot de Nantes (Senses of Cinema, April 2004)



Agnès Varda, Jacquot de Nantes
Agnès Varda, the only female filmmaker to come out of France's Nouvelle Vague, was married to another member of that movement, Jacques Demy, one of my favorite directors. At the National Museum of Women in the Arts last night, Agnès Varda was on hand for a screening of her 1991 film/documentary tribute to her husband, Jacquot de Nantes. As Mme. Varda explained in her introductory comments, she undertook this project in 1990, the beginning of the end of Demy's struggle with the illness that killed him. At the time, she explained, Demy was writing down as many of his childhood memories as he could remember, which he called Une enfance heureuse. Varda offered to write a filmscript and direct a movie based on Demy's happy childhood, which he agreed to let her do without interfering. As she explained, this project was "an adventure," recreating that part of a spouse's life which, in general, we are denied knowing "because we weren't there," childhood. She knew her husband's parents and brother, but only later in life. Demy, who survived to see much of the shooting and editing, was pleased by the film. Varda recounted one day on location, when all four of the family members were there to watch the shoot. Somewhat daunted by their presence, Varda asked Demy if what she was doing was alright, to which he replied, "Je suis là, je suis là," (that's me, that's me).

The movie follows the evolution of Jacquot, the little boy from Nantes, into Jacques, the filmmaker. Varda matches scenes that Demy recalled from childhood with the scenes she thinks they inspired, clips from Demy's movies inserted into hers, with the humorous device of a hand image pointing left or right to let us know we are shifting between cinematic worlds. She also manipulates our vision of Demy's past, often choosing to shoot scenes of the past characters in black and white, while the things that the young Demy saw (films, operetta performances, marionnette shows) are in color. Most devastatingly, the film is interspersed with shots of Demy, often in intimate near closeup, making us appreciate Demy not only for his films, but as Varda clearly did, as a person, as a body that she maps tenderly. She also uses an interview clip from the 1960s, which she told us she found at the Archives of Film and Television, where Demy describes his childhood memories of the Allied bombing of Nantes in September 1943, also recreated in the movie (but not in graphic detail, by conscious choice, as Varda explained). It changed him, Demy states, "and ever since, I have hated violence."

Agnès Varda, Jacquot de Nantes
Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy, on location with the three young actors who portray him in the movie
Demy's father ran a mechanic's garage in Nantes, which was the inspiration for the mechanic character in Demy's best film, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. Varda shot the scenes in the garage (and the home that was attached to the garage) in the actual garage formerly owned by the Demy family. Varda explained that she wanted to have a scene showing the underground hole used by mechanics to work on the undercarriage of cars, which had been covered up. After getting the owners to agree to reopening that hole, she chose the spot that would be best for her filming (because of the light and camera placement), and the workmen discovered that it was exactly the place where the hole had been (which no one in the family could recall precisely). Varda also wanted to recreate the first little film studio in the attic above the garage, where Demy created his first experiments with animated film. The owners of the garage allowed them to go up into the actual attic, where there were layers of detritus left by previous owners. As they dug down through the refuse, they found the things actually left by Demy in the attic, including footage of the very teenage films he had made there and pieces of the homemade sets he had used. Both were in terrible shape but could be carefully recreated by experts, and they were used in the film.

What struck me most about the childhood shown was how much singing there was. I am always amazed, for example at a dinner with friends in France, how many songs (popular and otherwise) the average French person knows. This remarkable mélomanie may be disappearing, since it is more pronounced in general the older the person is. For Demy, growing up in a family that sang constantly and went to see operetta, it makes perfect sense that he would later make movies in which even the postman sings (or, as Varda remarked after the movie, the boy at the gas pump, will sing the words Super ou ordinaire?). I love Demy's musicals, conceived of as opéras populaires by Demy and his composer collaborator Michel Legrand, for this very reason. For Varda, the aura of happiness created by the music and singing softened the impact of often tragic stories (as in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is, she said, "really a terribly sad movie"). What she shows in her movie is that singing can be part of a family's life, happy in spite of (perhaps because of?) the fact that the two brothers always share a bed, in the same room as their parents' bed. It's important for me to keep this in mind as a parent in a modern American city.

Agnès Varda's most recent film, Cinévardaphoto (2004), will be screened at the National Gallery of Art on March 6, as the Paris on the Potomac celebrations continue. Varda has also made other films about Demy, which I would like to see sometime: the documentaries The World of Jacques Demy (1995) and Les Demoiselles ont eu 25 ans (1993), about the shooting of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.

Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Agnès Varda, The World of Jacques Demy (1995)
Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Agnès Varda, Jacquot de Nantes (1991)
Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Jacques Demy, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964)

1 comment:

Cécile said...

I saw For the second time Jacquot de nantes yesterday. I like very much these directors… I didn't understand all what you wrote but I know I agree… ;o)