After Demy the child in Jacquot, meet Demy the man and filmmaker
Agnès Varda has over the past 20 years or so turned the lives and careers of both herself and her late husband Jacques Demy into something like a cottage industry; by my count at least 9 of her features and shorts from 1988 on have been directly autobiographical/biographical or essays on previous films. Many cineastes - particularly those allergic to nostalgia or to the filmmaker-as-critic might think such explorations to be excessively narcissistic - but they would be wrong I think. Each of the films that I've seen - "Jacquot de Nantes", "The Gleaners and I...Two Years Later", the short documentaries accompanying the Criterion disc of "Le bonheur", and this film - explore new ground, both intellectually and emotionally, and the careers of both filmmakers at this point stand as testaments to the value of intimate and repeated coverage of the same filmic territory - "film what you know." Most Americans will know only a few of Demy's films - "Lola", "Umbrellas of Cherbourg", "The Young Girls of Rochefort", "Donkey Skin" for example are the only ones I've seen - if they know any at all, so it was wonderful for me to learn that he had lived with his family in America for several years and made as many films in English as he did - given how generally unavailable - and poorly reviewed - much of his work is, I'd never bothered to look into much of it. Not that I wasn't interested, it was just a low priority, but Varda's film really gives one an idea of how much Demy's personality and obsessions - the city of Nantes, the American musical, fidelity, the tragedy of unrequited love - infuse even his lesser works; this reinvigorates my interest in getting hold of the other stuff, like his serious non-musical "Bay of Angels" (1963) or his serious political musical "Une chambre en ville" (1982). I'm also more interested in "Model Shop" (1969) knowing that it's the sequel to Lola, and that a very young Harrison Ford (interviewed for this film talking about his experience going into an LA sex shop with Demy as "research") was originally set to star in it.
Whereas Jacquot was more specifically autobiographical and explored Demy's early life before he became a filmmaker through extended clips of a few of his films and recreations of his early life, L'universe de Jacques Demy is a more straightforward examination of Demy the filmmaker, with, as Varda says a meandering, achronological approach that flits from one famous film from the 60s to a flop from the 80s, back to Demy's early animations and then forward again to a TV commission from the late 70s. It's beautifully edited, Varda has a talent for getting her interview subjects to focus briefly on one film and then move on to another time frame, where she can only follow. Most of the reminiscences are from Demy himself (shot apparently before he got sick, probably in the early 1980s) and his most significant collaborators (Varda herself, Michel Legrand, Catherine Deneuve, Michel Piccoli, etc), but there are also loving recollections of his films from "ordinary" people and some personal observations from his sister and his and Varda's children. There's also a wonderful tying-together of the beginning and ending with three young women, seen separately at different points in the film and then together at the finish, talking about what this filmmaker they never met meant to them, with the camera finally panning to his grave. It's a tribute to Varda's restraint and control that this is one of the few moments designed to provoke emotion - but by the time we get to it, it's certainly well-deserved.
I suppose I couldn't recommend this to anyone not already a fan of Demy and/or Varda, but to those few reading this who are, it's a must.
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