The Watchers
Michael Joshua Rowin on Jacquot de Nantes and The World of Jacques Demy

One would be hard-pressed to find a more poignant “cinematic love letter” than Jacquot de Nantes, Agnès Varda’s 1991 film about her fellow French New Waver and late husband Jacques Demy’s childhood and early adulthood. A superb bildungsroman in its fictional sections, Jacquot achieves a deeper sense of reflection with strategic inserts from Demy’s films as well as intimate documents of Demy not long before his death in 1990. Scenes from Lola (1961), Donkey Skin (1970), and The Pied Piper (1972), among others, draw connections between Demy’s life and art; the shots of Demy—sometimes explicating the experiences reenacted on screen and sometimes acting as the silent object of Varda’s gaze—make palpable the mortality of the future (but really past) person imagined or remembered from the fictional sections. In these ways Jacquot’s hybrid format allows two artists from across time and the gulf of death to converse on cinema’s ability to not simply capture but to more significantly form a life. That Jacquot rests such ambitions on a playful, moving, and unpretentious narrative (written by the director, as based on her husband’s memoirs) attests to the personal touch of Varda, who invests the film with its core tenderness.

Jacquot de Nantes works so well that it can engage even non-Demy devotees, like myself. The film depicts the young Jacques Demy—“Jacquot,” as his parents nickname him—as both furiously precocious and fundamentally innocent. Jacques (played as a boy by Philippe Maron, as an adolescent by Edouard Joubeaud, and as a college-aged man by Laurent Monnier) devours the magic, myths, and mechanics of cinema, initially attending the local theater with religious devotion and poring over movie journals with rapturous intensity. Eventually he builds an amateur studio with a 16mm camera, miniature sets, and a makeshift dolly.

The acquisition of cinematic love and knowledge (Jacques is the kid on the playground to whom others confer when trying to decide which films to watch) becomes a means of fashioning a fantasy world during the German occupation of France. While never infringing upon Jacques’s family in a severe manner—Jacques and his younger brother (Clément Delaroche) are sent to the country to stay with their aunt and uncle during especially difficult periods—the occupation is clearly the most traumatic event of the boy’s early life. And yet when Jacques recreates it in his first film—a hand-painted animation about a German aerial bombing titled Le Pont de Mauves (“The Bridge at Mauves”)—the color and movement of the artisan production overshadows its violent subject matter. The film so amuses Jacques’s mother (Brigitte De Villepoix) and brother that they add to it bombing and crashing noises. “Mama, it’s serious. It’s a cartoon newsreel,” Jacques reminds them.

Jacques’s comment hints at what would largely become the Demy aesthetic: the stylization of realistic and frequently tragic stories, often in the form of fairy tales, glamorous fantasies, or immersive forays into exaggerated sets, costumes, and choreography. A consistent criticism leveled at Demy’s work is that it is too enraptured by glossy appearances to have much to say about the big issues (war, class conflict, doomed love) contained therein. But throughout Jacquot Varda aesthetically and dramatically demonstrates how Demy’s flights of fancy express, rather than escape from, the more uncomfortable and untidy aspects of life. In one scene, for instance, Jacques spies upon his neighbor and teen love interest Reine (Marie-Sidonie Benoist) getting scolded by her mother for refusing to hide her pregnancy in public. Soon thereafter Jacques sympathetically asks Reine about her situation, to which she replies that no one will marry her, and that Jacques is too young to do so himself. As they part ways, Jacques heads to the annual street carnival—Reine hates such festivities—where he meets Josiane, the young woman who will become his first girlfriend. At various points in Jacquot Varda alternates from black-and-white cinematography to color film stock—she wisely does so here, making the noisy, confetti-swirled carnival a temporary visual feast in stark contrast to the grey drabness of Nantes.

Varda then cuts to a scene from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in which Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) maneuvers through a street carnival and ducks into her mother’s umbrella shop, where they discuss her pregnancy. The juxtaposition of biographical details from Demy’s real life with a selection from his cinematic output highlights the way Demy’s worlds—famously, all of Cherbourg’s dialogue is sung in the style of a Hollywood musical—sublimate his real surroundings. Geneviève is Reine, yes, but she is also Jacques. She is pregnant and will eventually break off a relationship with the father, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), but she also experiences the carnival in the same manner as Jacques (even if, like Reine, she doesn’t care for it) by venturing through its wild unfolding. Thus the unrequited dreamer meshes in fantastic yet melancholy fashion with the object of his dreams. Furthermore, Genevieve is Reine and Josiane, combining the qualities of a woman moving away from the carefreeness of her youth with those of a woman introduced alongside, and thus associated with, pure color and movement and life. The mature, world-weary girl-who-got-away meshes with a first love whom, for all her charm, turns out to be an inadequate substitute.

Similarly, Varda uses her own footage to discover evocative connections between the fictionalization of her husband’s youth and the documentation of his older self. There’s a wonderful scene midway through Jacquot in which Jacques returns to his father’s auto repair shop after a spell in the country, which has now become a dangerous battleground with the incursion of American forces. Jacques sets up a portable gramophone to play a song while wandering the shop courtyard, where he watches the wind blowing through the leaves of a tree and studies a crack running down a wall. What’s Jacques thinking at this moment? The film never spells out an answer, but Varda’s camera traces the objects of Jacques’s vision as if to evoke his very first moment of nostalgia. Returning home and on the cusp of adolescence, Jacques encounters the place where he spent the first phase of his youth and perhaps understands that it has changed not because of any external wear and tear but because he himself has changed.

This moment would have been lovely in and of itself, but the black-and-white tracking shot of the crack in the wall is followed by a tracking close-up in color of the real, older Demy. It’s difficult to describe the simple beauty of this shot, which moves across Demy’s grey hair and then curves downward to rest on his right eye. Varda matches young Demy’s nostalgic gaze across the courtyard with her own nostalgic gaze across the textured vistas of her dying husband’s face, her eye meeting his through the camera as if to confirm cinema’s inherent conflation of sight, memory, and mortality. At such moments Jacquot’s “portrait of the artist as a young man” narrative makes way for meditations on larger metaphysical concerns while speaking to the emotional yearnings central to both Demy’s and Varda’s work.

Similar poetic correspondences anchor The World of Jacques Demy (1995), a more conventional film that nonetheless presses against the formal boundaries of the standard talking head and compilation footage documentary. In World Varda goes through Demy’s oeuvre achronologically, the films traced by thematic and visual connections rather than their linear placement on the release date timeline. This strategy pays off when Varda discovers rich commonalities amongst films that for all their aesthetic likenesses and intertextuality often diverge radically in subject matter and tone. For instance, a brief look at Demy’s short for the omnibus film The Seven Deadly Sins (1962) spotlights the director’s intentionally over-the-top depiction of hell as imagined by a perplexed and fascinated child. This leads to a section on Parking (1985), a remake of Cocteau’s Orpheus in which the underworld is represented as a drab public garage. When Demy describes his reaction to the collective critical drubbing of Parking—“That’s the movies! You try something. It’s like the lottery. You win or you lose. You never know.”—Varda cuts to scenes from Bay of Angels (1963), Demy’s exploration of gambling. (Chance plays a major role in many Demy films.) In this way World reconstructs Demy’s career via Varda’s stream of consciousness.

Varda also offers insights from a host of other Demy collaborators and admirers. These include fans as well as family members (daughter Rosalie Varda served as costume designer for four Demy productions) and famous actors (Deneuve, Anouk Aimée, a bearded Harrison Ford, who was initially considered for a starring role in Lola sequel and Hollywood foray Model Shop [1969]). It’s a testament to Varda’s emotional subtlety and tastefulness that she starts and ends World with a fan reading a letter she directly addressed and sent (too late, unfortunately) to Demy:

You are a truly original filmmaker. Only you can mix a harmonious cocktail of varying predilections for painting, music, poetry, café philosophy, fairy tales, social critique, opera, American musicals, exotic and spiritual travels. You give expression to a world both true and reinvented. I get high on your films. Excuse my tipsiness. I only wanted to say Thank you. Camille.

Before World I don’t know if I’d ever seen a documentary about a filmmaker that so wonderfully opens the floor to the people who represent the largest contingent of the cinema experience: moviegoers. Camille’s letter captures the intangible longing to both recognize the self and to see the never-before-seen that draws viewers to the films they love, and she expresses that longing with such beauty and eloquence that she proves her earlier claim that Demy’s films “taught me to look at life by placing a magic screen over the bitter lucidity.” Without calling too much attention to it—in other words, without diverting attention from her husband and his work—that’s also exactly what Varda accomplishes in Jacquot de Nantes and The World of Jacques Demy. These aren’t all-encompassing films: they don’t reveal every side of Demy and they don’t employ every angle Varda might have used to reveal him—certainly, Varda and Demy’s marriage remains completely out of sight. Instead Jacquot and World constitute thoughtful, heartfelt portraits that embody the artistry of both filmmaker and subject, wedding them through the medium beyond the limits of life.