The person who introduced this film at my screening called it a valentine to Jacques Demy and I think it’s a really fitting description. I found it rather hard to really evaluate this film in terms of the filmmaking involved because I was just completely captivated by the subject matter and that is what most of my review is going to be about as a consequence.
So the film begins with Varda reciting a poem by Baudelaire and we see an adult Demy standing at a beach. Soon we transition from Demy’s present-day recollections to actual re-enactments of Demy’s childhood in Nantes. I believe these re-enactments are at the actual venues. So we get to see his father’s garage and the little apartment attached to it in which they lived. We see that Jacquot was a happy kid raised in an affectionate home where people sing as they work and go to watch opera and movies together. Most of this is shot in beautiful black and white (I was excited to see Agnès Godard’s name in the cinematography credits) with sudden transitions to bright, beautiful color from time to time. Initially, these bursts of color occur whenever Jacquot is watching a puppet show or the opera and to me this worked really well in terms of highlighting just how magical these performances must have seemed to a little boy growing up in a auto garage in a small provincial French town. I also loved the seamless transitions from these re-enactments to scenes from Demy’s films. For instance, we see his mom rolling out dough in B&W and the scene transitions to Catherine Deneuve rolling dough in one of Demy’s films. And his fascination with the visiting aunt who seems to be leading a rather scandalous life in Brazil and the older neighbor girl who seems far too free-spirited to be stuck in Nantes seem to have made a big impression as well and I could totally see how these little things might be exactly the kind of things one tends to remember years later. Demy always seems to have been a really gentle boy which is evident from the way he interacts with his little brother and other boys around him and so on and even the scenes where the family and the town are affected by war, it seems not to have seriously affected what Demy himself refers to as a “happy childhood”. So all of these lovely re-enactments are really great to watch. The scenes of the kids watching the puppet show, the kids playing in the rain, the boys swimming in the lake with the new girl who’s come to stay with the neighbors are all great snapshots of childhood and universal in their appeal. But as much fun as all this is, we’ve definitely seen these things before.
What really made this so special for me was Demy’s utter fascination with the arts, especially cinema. Right from a really young age, he seems to have been hell-bent not just on watching shows but on recreating stuff himself. We see him recreating the Punch & Judy shows at home with cardboard and felt pens and put on shows for his family. The part that I just couldn’t get over is how, unlike most other childhood obsessions, Demy seems to have never gotten over this passion. He never seems to have gotten distracted from this one thing that he seems to love so much. He seems to have relentlessly worked on getting better at creating things that he can turn into films. I don’t know if the reason this had such a profound impact on me is because I have myself never been able to really stick to something. Either fear of failure or plain old-fashioned laziness has always come in the way. So it was fascinating for me to see a little boy resourcefully find different ways to create stuff all the time. Secondly I couldn’t help but adore a boy who carries his phonograph EVERYWHERE .
So it is that we see little Jacquot trade stuff to obtain his very first movie camera and the entire sequence where he’s gathering up actors to shoot the film script that’s included in the camera manual is so much fun to watch and honestly, it blows Son of Rambow out of the water. And the way Jacquot decides not to rely on his volunteer actors who he finds fussy and difficult to work with and decides to make animation films instead.
I was moved by the parts where we see Jacques stuck in trade school and could totally relate to the fear of never being able to do what one really wants to do. What I couldn’t relate to but could admire was Jacques’s perseverance throughout this time. He seems to have just locked himself up in the attic and made films all day long refusing to admit defeat and resign to becoming a tradesman. I love the scenes where he’s painstakingly painting individual cells to show movement and using a rollerskate to set up dolly shots for his film. Oh and the scenes at the trade school are really well-shot and I think highlight Varda’s ability to document people at work in their natural environment. And I loved that these scenes are juxtaposed with the sound of a teacher explaining to the students in the adjacent classroom that “To summarise. Manual workers and intellectual workers are totally different from each other. Copy that down!” .
It’s also really fun to see Jacquot, the movie-nerd! I am really jealous of French kids btw. It seems that French families always spend their weekends going to the cinema! From his early declaration of Les Enfants du paradis as a masterpiece to his insistence that his friend should watch La Belle et la Bête and the way the older kids ask him what to watch because Jacquot always seems to know about all the films that are running. Then there’s the amazing scene where he explains the “day for night” effect to his friend so matter-of-factly. I just loved all this.
Some of the most touching scenes in the film are where the film jumps out of the childhood sequences and the camera just lingers on Demy’s aged body. There is such tenderness and affection in these scenes that I just couldn’t help but tear up a little.
I am still unsure about whether to think of this film as a documentary or as a piece of fiction. On the one hand, it feels documentary-like given that it is chronicling the recollections of a real childhood. On the other hand, Varda is definitely letting this remain a romanticized portrayal free of any judgment or a huge emphasis on historical accuracy and so on. So it really feels somewhat fictional in that respect.
I had a great time with it and definitely recommend it.