Jacquot de Nantes (1991) - Agnès Varda
Recently I've been on something of a journey of discovery with Agnes Varda, working my way through Artificial Eye's boxset. I've now seen 5 films directed by Varda, am completely convinced of her genius but have barely scratched the surface. Varda directed 24 features and many shorts in a career that began in the 50s. I studied Cleo from 5 to 7 at University as part of the French New Wave but had no idea how fascinatingly brilliant and diverse her career ended up being. Even after her death last year, and the re-appraisal of her career it feels as though her place is cinema has yet to be fully appreciated or understood. Her place in the history of cinema still remains to be solidified and celebrated. She was a founding member of the French New Wave and while other directors, notably Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut have become canonised, Varda has, until recently, remained a peripheral figure in cinema. Despite having only seen five of her films its obvious that needs to change. She is arguably a more interesting, progressive and unique cinematic voice than either of her male contemporaries.
My latest Varda discovery, Jacquot de Nantes, joins L'une chante, l'autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn't) as another masterpiece in Varda's career that I had never heard of until I put the disc in my blu-ray player. The film tells the story of the early life of Jacques Demy. Another director who emerged during the French New Wave and who collaborated and lived with Varda for over 30 years. What I discovered after watching the Jacquot de Nantes, which adds a layer of poignancy, was that the film was made with both Varda and Demy aware that he was dying of cancer.
Jacquot de Nantes is a love letter. A love letter from Varda to Demy, from Varda to cinema and for the past and the dreams and ambitions of one of the few who cinema chose, to paraphrase a quote from Jacquot's teacher. The love and affection felt by Varda for both Demy and cinema enrich the film with romanticism and beauty that I found infectious. Varda's treatment of Demy's burgeoning love affair with cinema, his early forays (and disappointments) into filmmaking, and the meticulous approach he takes to the cinema are played with such affection and passion that it reminded me of what made me fall in love with cinema; the power the artform holds over captive audiences and the wonder it inspires. Demy's early life, and most of the film is told in black & white. His cinematic dreams and the images from his own film Varda sprinkles throughout the film are invariably in colour. For Varda and Demy, life may be in black and white, but cinema is in rich colour.
Varda intersperses the story of Demy's young life (told across three differing actors capturing the various ages of Jacquot) with documentary-style footage of Demy himself and scenes from Demy's films - highlighting the inspirational moments Demy experienced that fed into his films. For someone not overly familiar with Demy's work (with the exception of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) it served as a tantalising intro to a director I am now keen to explore. Each foray into his actual films traces the seeds of creation to fruition in a way which demonstrates and celebrates the unique quality all filmmakers bring to their films. So we see how growing up with a mechanic for a father, his love of musicals and animation informed and shaped the films Demy would make.
As the story unfolds key moments stand out; Jacquot's visit to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, his growing authority of which films (and directors) can be relied upon to make great cinema; Demy soon becomes the person friends ask about what films to watch. The painstaking and meticulous attempts to make a film. At one point, having shot his first film and waited months for the stock to be developed he discovers he's messed up the exposure and the film is blank. And his persistent and unrelenting desire to understand all facets of the art form. Jacquot is never deterred, always more resolute.
This wondrous story unfolds against the backdrop of significant historical moments. So we see Jacquot grow up under the shadow of the Second World War and the occupation of the Nazi's. We come to understand how this occupation, his relocation to the countryside during the war and subsequent return all feeds into his films.
Varda isn't content though to just show us the life and work of this man who has created such incredible films and been such an important part of her life. She also gives us some of Demy's final moments of his life. Footage shot of Demy on a beach, presumably with both knowing these would make up some of his final moments' layer on added levels of poignancy and emotional heft. Here is a man coming to the end of his life, in a film celebrating the beginning and formative parts of his life. I can't think of a more fitting elegy for Jacquot than this love letter from one of cinema's greatest exponents. A delightful, beautiful and passionate masterpiece.