Agnes Varda’s Loving Work About Her Husband
Agnes Varda, who made her first feature, “Cleo From 5 to 7,” in 1961, remains one of the most long-lived, productive and difficult to categorize directors associated with France’s New Wave.
Though many of her colleagues have lost their momentum or died, she continues, in part, it seems, because she has never become locked into a particular form or dominant ideology. As the years go by, her focus shifts. She lives in a present that is ever enriched by the accumulating past.
For her that past includes one of the funniest artifacts of the liberated 1960’s, “Lions Love” (1969), about three upwardly mobile flower children on the loose in Hollywood, and “Daguerreotypes” (1975), a fine documentary about her friends and neighbors on a short stretch of the Rue Daguerre in Paris’s 14th Arrondissement. In 1985 there was “Vagabond,” her tough, compassionate fiction film about a young woman’s resolute drift toward destruction.
Some Varda works have not been especially successful. “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (1976) plays like feminist agitprop.
Yet in all of her films there is a consistent personal commitment that illuminates the material. That commitment has never been more compellingly evident than in the new “Jacquot de Nantes,” which will be shown at the New York Film Festival tonight at 9:30.
“Jacquot de Nantes” is the sort of film that no one but Miss Varda would have made or, for that matter, could have made. It’s neither documentary nor, in the usual sense, fiction.
It’s a one-of-a-kind celebration of a very gentle man, Jacques Demy, the French film maker (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” among others), who died last October and who was Miss Varda’s husband and the father of their son, Mathieu. The film’s origins were singular.
Miss Varda said that her husband, during his illness, talked increasingly about his childhood in Nantes, about the members of his family, about growing up during the German Occupation and the struggle he had to convince his father that he should be allowed to study film making in Paris.
As Demy talked, and the anecdotes came forth, his wife suggested that he should record these stories and that, eventually, the two of them should use them as the basis for a film. He asked her to make it, refusing even to write the screenplay or any of the dialogue so the finished work would be hers.
He did oversee the production and, from time to time, briefly appears on the screen himself, looking back to the times and places of his youth, which are lovingly reconstructed by Miss Varda and lovingly acted by professionals and the people of Nantes.
The result is a film not quite like any other.
“Jacquot de Nantes” is as gentle as Demy is remembered to have been by those who knew him. In its scrubbed-clean look of a nearly trouble-free past, the film is also respectful of the physical and emotional artifice that Demy’s films exalted. Neither sarcasm nor irony has any place in this world, where every particular detail is a kind of generalized ideal.
Jacquot’s father, who runs a small garage, is stern but kind, even when he insists that Jacquot learn a trade instead of filling his head with movie nonsense. His mother supplements the family income as a hairdresser and is equally supportive. Jacquot never fights with his little brother. His friendships are warm. Even the war remains a benign experience.
Though Miss Varda uses clips from various Demy films to illustrate the ways in which the director’s life directly influenced him, she has no interest in making a film scholar’s associations. There is something far less parochial going on: the film mourns not only the loss of one man but also of a way of small-town French life.
At its best, “Jacquot of Nantes” has the manner of a family album. But like a family album, its interest is pretty much limited to family members, devoted friends and admirers. Those who know Demy only through his work can appreciate Miss Varda’s skills, while finding it difficult to share the intensity of her emotions.
For the outsider, something vital appears to be missing. The Jacquot we see on the screen, who is played by three different boys as he grows up, is apparently so happy that his need to flee Nantes to become a film artist never seems more than an ardent whim.
The movie shows the young Jacquot falling in love with the theater, making his own puppet show and, eventually, painstakingly animating his own home movie. It prettily moves back and forth between black-and-white and color photography and, in a casual way, discovers locations in Nantes that grown-up Jacquot would later use in his movies.
Yet there is little sense of the passion that was to animate Demy, a man who, in “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” could tell a story about sweet young love and a sadistic killer more or less in the same breath.
That may be asking too much. “Jacquot de Nantes” doesn’t mean to be a critical evaluation, a psychological profile or a biography. It’s a memoir of Demy’s love affair with Nantes and with movies, by the woman who shared his life for 32 years.
Vincent Canby, NY Times, September 25, 1991