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)
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 and Jacques Demy, on location with the three young actors who portray him in the movie
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.
Agnès Varda, The World of Jacques Demy (1995)
Agnès Varda, Jacquot de Nantes (1991)
Jacques Demy, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964)