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  • Ravi Swami

"Jacquot De Nantes", Dir: Agnes Varda, 1991

I think I was a fan of Jacques Demy's work before I even knew who he was since I have a dim memory of watching a film review show on TV sometime in the late '70's. featuring a location production report of one of his films that included footage of a film about umbrellas and people dancing in the streets of a provincial French town.

Much much later, in the early 2000's, I discovered his work and made the connection - again this was triggered by association - randomly surfing to a French TV satellite station and seeing a film review show, this time in colour, and featuring shots from his joyous masterwork "Les Demoiselles De Rochefort", a musical that follows the successful format of the commercial and critical hit that preceded it, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg", in skipping past conventional dialogue and replacing it with a script that is sung for the entirety of the film to a score by Demy's long-time collaborator, Michel Legrand.

By the time he made "Les Demoiselles" his reputation had grown slowly from his first film, "Lola", building on themes that pretty much ended with "Une Chambre En Ville" and that featured interlinked characters and narratives across a series of films that had the effect of defining characters whose lives existed beyond the limits of the film frame in each story.

Released in 1991, "Jacquot De Nantes" was directed by Agnes Varda, Demy's wife and other collaborator, and herself a noted film-maker with a distinctive personal style, to document Demy's early life and formative years, prior to his premature death from HIV/AIDS in 1990, in the form of vignettes taking in the German occupation of Nantes, Demy's home town, its Liberation and ending with Demy's acceptance into film school in Paris, all the while exploring and revealing the themes and locations that informed his most well known and well-received films, from "Lola" through to "Une Chambre En Ville".

The biggest surprise for me is that prior to evolving into a live-action film-maker, Demy pursued an interest in animation, partly fuelled by seeing Disney's "Snow White and the 7 Dwarves", and partly out of necessity - a relative gifted him an 8mm projector and a few reels of film containing Charlie Chaplin shorts and during a moment of frustration that he could only show the same film over and over again to his family - in particular to his doubting and disapproving father who wanted him to pursue a sensible career and take up engineering, with the aim of following him in his garage business - he stuck the reel into a pan of boiling water and scraped off the exposed emulsion, to replace it with a hand-drawn epic detailing the bombing by the Germans of a bridge in Nantes - not an easy task on such a small format film like 8mm.

This breakthrough was followed by building a small studio in his parent's garage attic to shoot stop-motion films, in a sense a logical outcome of his interest in live theatre and set design that was nurtured early on by regular visits to a local puppet theatre, but also by manual skills honed during the day at the technical college that he hated and dreamed of escaping from - his magnum opus stop-motion short film, about a Parisian bag-snatcher, became his ticket out of Nantes and gained him an entry into film school in Paris, suspending his desire to work with the French animation pioneer, Paul Grimault - a world that opened up his life to the burgeoning "Nouvelle Vague/ New Wave" cinema of the late '50s and '60's.

For me, there is special resonance in the above details since I started out in much the same way, experimenting with 8mm, building a rostrum camera in my bedroom with the help of a kindly and supportive neighbour, and drawing and shooting animation, although with much less disapproval to fight against, which on reflection, is what made Demy more determined to follow his chosen path.

Combined with this are the recurring themes in his early films of escaping the restrictions and lack of opportunities of provincial life and its banalities to seek his fortune in the wider world - in much the same way, I grew up in a small West-London town and felt distanced from the world depicted in films I watched at local cinemas.

These themes are reflected in his first film, "Lola", set in Nantes and using locations familiar and significant to Demy, such as "The Passage Pommeraye" where Demy acquired his first camera, through to "Une Chambre En Ville", and characters throughout all the films express a yearning to escape and live a fuller life than the one facing them "back home".

Having watched this biographical film, which is a poignant farewell to Demy by his wife, Agnes Varda, his films take on a deeper signficance since they are tightly interwoven into his own life and experience, while still succeeding in being entertaining and having a lightness of touch that can often be lacking in semi-autobiographical films.


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