Jacquot et Nantes, dir. Agnès Varda, 1991
The legendary French auteur, Agnès Varda, passed away in March 2019, aged 90, and what has been striking about the retrospective of her work showing at the Brattle Theater is just how generous Varda's lens was to the people she documented: rarely, if ever, did she make herself the subject of one of her films and her narrative focus never seemed to derive from her own historiography. Even in her last feature, the eponymous Varda by Agnès, the title is misleading given it is more about the people she shared her career with and who she showcased rather than herself as the great icon of the French New Wave movement in cinema. This spirit of looking outwards was what characterised the earthy anthropological gaze of great films such as Sans toit ni loi and Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, but never was this spirit of generosity, of using the camera to pay tribute to and eulogise others, more palpable than in this, her requiem for her dying husband the director and screenwriter Jacques Demy.
Demy was a filmmaker so what better way to pay tribute to him than to focus entirely on what made him want to become a filmmaker in the first place? Jacquot et Nantes reconstructs Demy's childhood and adolescence in Nantes in the 1930's and 40's and charts a happy and inquisitive child's burgeoning fascination and then increasing obsession with puppetry, theatre, cinema and film making. It is essentially a roman à clef with the thesis here seeming to be one self-reverential to Varda herself as a film maker: once you are one, you are for life, so what more is there to say? The film ends with the young Demy finally being able to leave the restraints of rural France and a life destined for a 'trade' by going to Paris where he enrolls in film school, and somehow you do not feel as if you need to know any more about the man than that simple fact. What comes later is merely what has always been destined: it is the actualisation of childhood fantasy come to pass which makes this film so affecting and so quietly powerful.
It is not quite as simplistic as all that, however, because as usual Varda's technical mastery hides the multi-layered complexity embedded into her script as she plays constantly with tone, chronology, point of view and objectivity. Her great ingenuity derives from her seamless talent for interweaving documentary and fiction into one composite narrative. We have clips of the real life Demy, captured in the last stages of a terrible and terminal illness, and he sometimes makes short pithy comments to camera and sometimes just stares ahead, for example, on the beach at the sea, or sitting at his table and stroking his pet cat. The pathos these moments creates is beautifully rendered as they are juxtaposed with the fictional retelling his energised and aspirant youth: the old cuts to the young and somehow we glimpse an entirety of all that has gone on in between. The intervening years are made full and apparent to us without us actually seeing anything of them. Instead what Varda does is constantly loop forwards to inter-cut scenes from Demy's own movies, such as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and Model Shop and shows how they mirror autobiographical elements of his earlier life. Occasionally, Varda will comment herself in voice over, always something poetic, soulful and philosophical, in that glorious warm honey-drip voice of hers. However, never once does she mention Demy as her husband or father of her son: that she withholds what must be deeply personal and painful for her translates all the more touchingly in that we actually feel that pain more viscerally and deeply. She is commenting about all life and all death. Three weeks after filming concluded on Jaquot et Nantes, Demy passed away.
Meanwhile the film draws on a sensational metafictional conceit. The scenes of Demy's childhood are all shot in stunning black and white, while all scenes in the present and excerpts of his films are in colour. But more than this, whenever the young Demy comes across a film poster or visits the theatre or shows a short animated movie he has made, they too are in colour. So there is a constant, fast-paced back and forth between the two sharp contrasts often from one single shot to the next in the very same scene. To add, the chronology jumps back and forth with no signage except an amusing animation of a hand either pointing forwards or backwards. What Varda is signalling is that film was colour to Demy; his life devoid of film was also devoid of colour. Hence life in small-town rural France, no matter how happy and joyous and boyish and absent of all tragedy and misery (even during German occupation) is tonally represented as being drained of any vibrancy. The boy comes to life so utterly when he is attending a Punch and Judy show, or making his own toy theatre or tinkering with his first camera and when he finally hits Paris and the real world of cinema, the film gravitates to an intense flood of colour to show his full and final immersion into the life he has always yearned for. What may sound on paper like a tedious heavy-handed gimmick works in Varda's hands like a gem, always light and played with touches of her trademark whimsy and humour.
The scenes recreating Demy's childhood are so exquisitely measured. We are given such a full and comprehensive sense of what growing up in that time encapsulated. Demy is played by three brilliant child actors, Philippe Maron, Edourard Joubeaud and Laurent Monnier. Each one seems to take over where the other left off with a complete sense of the character they are playing tribute to, including the ability to embody the delicate nuances of Demi's developing personality. Young Demy is an outgoing and gregarious child, always surrounded by friends and family and navigating the mild angst of his adolescence with a beguiling charm which makes you root for him even in his rare impetuous and stubborn moments. There are echoes of a fledgling romance with a girl up the street, hints towards his later sexual ambivalence, a steely devotion to his mother and the beginnings of a tender resentment towards his father for insisting that he become a car mechanic and not waste his time on films. It is all handled with subtlety and a cheery naturalism which possibly amounts to the best kind of tribute Varda could make: Demy's was a good honest life in pursuit of a good honest dream.
Philippe Maron, Edourard Joubeaud, Laurent Monnier and Jacques Demy on location during the shoot for Jacquot de Nantes. Agnès Varda stands in the background.