Varda, Demy

This past week, AgnËs Varda made the rounds to various Los Angeles sites as part of this year’s On Set with French Cinema series, picking up USC’s first Eisenstein Award along the way for her “visionary and distinguished contributions to the cinema.”

I’ve blogged about Varda before, the “grande dame of the French New Wave,” but I managed to catch up with her in person at the American Cinematheque, where she screened her latest film, a 12-minute short entitled Le Lion volatil (2003), as well as her acclaimed Jacquot (Jacquot de Nantes) (1991), a dramatization of the early years in the life of filmmaker Jacques Demy (1931-1990), her late husband.

Le Lion volatil is a completely charming sketch she created to represent her neighborhood of Paris, Denfert-Rochereau, which includes the bronze Lion of Belfort statue in the town square. In quick, witty strokes, Varda presents Clarisse (Julie Depardieu), a mystic apprentice, who meets Lazare (David Deciron), an amateur magician working for a tourist company, and the two strike up a potential romance in the city streets. But Clarisse has more on her mind and becomes convinced she can see paranormal visions. Varda combines street-filmmaking with digital effects. Clarisse’s ultimate vision is the disappearance of the Lion de Belfort, replaced with Varda’s purring housecat–no doubt a gentle wink towards the recurring felines throughout the work of the Left Bank filmmakers. Breezy and full of details of the surrounding neighborhood, the film is a sweet delight.

Jacquot is an altogether more complex and moving work, conceived as a tribute to Demy as he was dying of AIDS. After the screening, Varda explained that while she has no interest in making a film about her own childhood, making a film about Demy’s childhood proved to be surprisingly autobiographical for her since both filmmakers belong to the same generation. The film is mostly a light period drama, but it’s intercut with brief interviews of Demy as well as clips from his own films (including 1961’s Lola, 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort), as well as footage Varda shot of Demy sitting on the beach, the camera passing over his skin in extreme closeup much like she would film herself in The Gleaners and I (2000). Varda told the Cinematheque audience that Demy had given her free reign on the production (he died during the editing stages) but that he had been simply encouraging and supportive anytime she asked for his aesthetic opinion.

The son of an auto mechanic, the film presents Jacquot develops an early passion for showmanship and puppetry, which eventually becomes an all-consuming obsession with movies and filmmaking. Jacquot obtains his first hand-cranked camera and casts the neighborhood children in melodramatic roles. After struggling through such setups, he decides to film stop-motion animated films and eventually buys a more expensive camera, all the while screening his latest productions for his parents and friends in a spare attic. Varda’s film lovingly recreates these nostalgic moments and cuts to mirroring scenes from Demy’s professional career throughout, constructing a portrait that is at once a love letter to the movies, a critical perspective on one of its celebrated artist’s, and a personal tribute. “This film is full of, not sad things, but heavy things,” Varda said. “But it’s also full of happiness.”

Incidentally, Demy’s Lola and Bay of Angels (1963), along with Varda’s subsequent documentary, The Universe of Jacques Demy (1995), will be getting new DVD releases in December. At the Cinematheque, Varda also mentioned she had recently finished restoring Demy’s Donkey Skin (Peau d’‚ne) and had just finished producing supplementary material for its DVD release in France later this year, alas without English subtitles.